Childhood abuse can come in many forms - physical, sexual, emotional, psychological.
What they all have in common is that the survivors often think the abuse was their fault.
Before we go further into this painful and confusing subject, it is important to be very clear: abuse is never your fault. Children neither participate in, instigate, or perpetrate their own abuse. The abusers are the adults.
So what is going on here?
1. Construction of the child’s self with parents/adults as guides
Children construct a world for themselves where their parents (and to a lesser extent, other significant adults such as teachers, youth leaders, older relatives) are the holders of authority, reliability, and safety. What these adults say and do is right. They are an important reference point in an often confusing and sometimes overwhelming world.
Even if these adults violate them, children desperately try to uphold the foundations of their world-construction. Often the only way to do this is to believe that somehow, the adults are still right; they must still be right, or the child's world collapses. And that means that the abuse must have been the child’s fault.
2. Conflict of loyalty
Children experience a conflict of loyalty – the abusing parent is still the parent. The abusive teacher is still the trusted teacher. The child feels that she owes this adult loyalty and love. If pressured, the child is afraid to betray the love and loyalty she assumes the parent/teacher/uncle must feel for them. This is one of the reasons why children often lie to defend the abuser. This is also one of the reasons why adult survivors often cannot acknowledge the truth.
Many abusers tell the children directly that the abuse is their own fault. They say that the child ‘made them do it,’ and/or that the abuse happened ‘for their own good.’ This puts the child in an impossible bind. It is normal for children to have to suspend their own immature judgment and rely on norms set by adults instead. How can they differentiate between benign and abusive motives?
4. Loss of parental love
Accepting that you are a survivor of childhood abuse means accepting an immense loss. Your childhood was not the safe place to grow and develop that it should have been, your trust was violated, and, worst of all, your parents did not treat you with love. This is one of the biggest and most lasting taboos in modern society. If you had a strong reaction to reading this, perhaps even a kind of automatic disbelief, imagine what it must feel to have overwhelming evidence. Almost anything else is better. Believing that your parents somehow were forced to abuse you because you were to blame can feel like a better alternative than accepting that they did not love you and did not care for you.
Shame is everywhere in childhood abuse. In cases of sexual abuse, the act itself is often framed as a secret that the victim must keep hidden from everyone else. Children also can feel sexually aroused, often for the first time in their lives, through sexual abuse. This is particularly shameful to them and also confuses the situation. “If I felt sexual arousal then maybe I wanted it.” “Maybe I really manipulated the adult into abusing me without realizing it.” “I don’t understand what is right and wrong – so I must be wrong.”
Unfortunately, some media portrayals of childhood abuse survivors often shame the survivors as damaged, dysfunctional, and socially inferior. Private shame turns into stigma.
The truth is, anyone can be a survivor of childhood abuse. Survivors are often very brave, sensitive, and empathetic.
Understanding why survivors feel that the abuse was their own fault is absolutely vital to recovery from childhood trauma and eventual healing. This is not ‘faulty thinking’ that must be corrected, once more, from the outside. Survivors have every right to progress at their own pace. Deeply internalized childhood patterns take a long time to unravel.
But the truth still is: abuse is never the fault of the victim. The abuse has very little to do with who the victim is; it is all about the psychological issues of the abuser.
Alice Miller, psychiatrist, survivor of childhood abuse, and author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, writes this about childhood abuse, “The child must adapt to ensure the illusion of love, care, and kindness, but the adult does not need this illusion to survive. He can give up his amnesia and then be in a position to determine his actions with open eyes. Only this path will free him.”