Childhood trauma is unfortunately not unique, as one in three girls and one in four boys experience it. As we study the impact inter-generational trauma has on adults, it is clear that it is much more than the risk of hurting others, but also the increased chance of surrounding yourself with people who continue to be hurtful.
I was a child who experienced childhood abuse. I come from an intact, upper middle-class family with parents who were both abused children. My house wasn’t a place for feelings and we portrayed a family image of absolute function. I wasn’t abused in my home, but I was abused by a relative. He could see the disassociation in my home and took advantage of the situation to manipulate and abuse me sexually and emotionally. My parents loved me and wanted the best for me, and there is no question that they tried to be the best they could be for me. But until I had experienced it as a parent myself, I never understood why they couldn’t see how damaged I had become.
The relative who abused me died when I was 11 and the abuse stopped. But the nightmare of attempting to heal has taken a lot longer than I ever expected. Through intense treatment, I realized that by protecting myself, I had disassociated from the abuse and from myself almost completely, leaving very little attachment to my emotions. This led to a long period of time of focusing on achievement and productivity in order to prove my worth, and little to no association with what feeling “worthy” really meant.
Determined to break the cycle, I decided that I would never have children so I could avoid any possibility of hurting them. But, I entered a relationship with a person who was hurt. Despite my fears and misgivings, we had a child and she is the best thing that has ever happened in my life. I, however, spent such a large amount of my time doing and making sure I had a “happy family,” that it wasn’t long before I had created the same unhealthy disassociated environment I grew up in.
I was absent and blind to the abuse I was experiencing in my relationship, telling myself I was overreacting and that it wasn’t as bad as when I was a kid. As a result, I was absent and blind to the abuse my daughter was experiencing, which was physical and emotional. I found myself in a home that was dangerous for the one person I was committed to protect: my child.
We’re on the other side of it now; my daughter and I have moved on from the toxic life we were leading. We’ve both been in trauma therapy for some time, and she really is breaking the cycle. She looks for healthy people to connect with, talks about her feelings and has the strength to call me on it when I am glossing over the stuff that matters, as I still can tend to be disassociated for my own protection.
The big lesson we learned is this: Trauma causes blind spots. And for those who live with the impacts of childhood trauma, we can’t see dysfunction and cruelty the way people who haven’t lived with it can. The kids in our lives deserve to be seen, and if you’ve been hurt, you can’t always do that. We need to work together as a society of adults. If you see a child who raises your radar for being in crisis, even a little bit, reach out and talk to them. Be brave and allow them space to share. We all need to be in tune to what our kids are experiencing, because we all have different blind spots, but together, we can help and hopefully, really break the cycle of abuse in our society.
Written by Christine Netzley-Morales, MSN, BSB, RN
About the Guilds Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center
For the Guilds Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center (CAP-T) at Valley Children's, the month of April marks a time of highlighting and promoting collective action against child abuse. Along with its community partners, The Guilds CAP-T Center aims to address child abuse at every level of prevention, including when abuse or neglect of a child has already occurred. This process is called tertiary prevention and includes seeking to reduce the negative consequences of maltreatment and to reduce its recurrence. In addition to the comprehensive medical and forensic services provided by the Guilds CAP-T Center, the provision of trauma-focused mental health services has proven to be one of the most impactful services offered to survivors of child abuse and their families. The Center includes a Child Advocacy Clinic, which operates five days a week and sees more than 1,000 children each year. The team is available seven days a week, 24 hours a day for emergency coverage.