‘Guilt’ of Sexually Abused Children Can Be a Psychological Time Bomb
Frigid women, prostitutes and child abusers have a common bond--most of them were sexually abused as children.
For many, love came with a price tag. They got the attention and approval they sought only by accepting the abuse. They were betrayed by the people they looked to for protection.
The guilt and shame associated with the price they paid for their natural needs as children haunts them, becoming a psychological time bomb that can turn them into frigid women, multiple personalities, prostitutes or child abusers, said Kee MacFarlane, director of the Child Sexual Abuse Diagnostic Center at Children’s Institute International in Los Angeles.
“We are not talking about a couple of stray, lone perverts in the park. About 75% of the people who molest kids are known to the children, people they trust,” said the social worker, who came to Los Angeles after six years as a child sexual abuse specialist at the National Center on Child Abuse in Washington.
For 15 years, she has treated the victims, the parents, and the perpetrators.
A physically abused child can often assume something is wrong with a parent who lashes out violently. The child just naturally figures something is wrong with his dad if the father breaks his arm over a glass of spilled milk.
But with sexual abuse, the guilt becomes the victim’s, MacFarlane said. Children are taught early not to talk about sex, to keep their clothes on in public. So after a sexual act occurs, the child assumes he is to blame.
The abuse is almost always shrouded in secrecy and surrounded with threats. The nature of the threat ranges from violence to loss, she said.
The most common threat goes this way: “No one is going to believe you. And if you do tell, you’ll be blamed. Mommy won’t love you any more. You’ll never get another hug,” she said.
Even if a child disregards the threat, he or she often isn’t believed and that “adds to the sense of having done something wrong,” MacFarlane said.
For those who heed the warnings and keep the secret, walls go up. “They carry the secret around, put barriers between them and their families and friends. They grow up feeling different, marked and guilty. They are not able to have a normal childhood.”
Burden of Guilt
Children who have experienced sexual pleasure during the abuse feel even heavier burdens of guilt, MacFarlane said.
“We are finding an almost 100% correlation between multiple personalities and early child abuse trauma. They start with this initial splitting of two--the good me and the bad me. From that early splitting is the development of multiple personalities until it is completely out of control for them,” she explained.
Sexually abused children often “lose their developing ability for intimacy. They lose trust. They lack the ability to bond in an intimate, meaningful way,” she said. As adults, some women who suffered sexual abuse years earlier are considered frigid and sometimes don’t even know why.
Treatment for victims depends on a number of things, including the nature of the abuse, the frequency of the abuse, the relationship of the victim to the abuser and how society treats the victim, said the social worker.
For small children, therapy takes the form of play since their verbal skills have not been developed, said MacFarlane, who has done extensive work with the young victims in the McMartin Pre-School case.
“The best way for small children is to act it out with dolls and houses. We help children reenact what happened,” she said.
The younger the child and the more recent the abuse, the more likely the success, she said.
Must Face What Happened
Adults have to face what happened and relive it. “Unless you probe it directly, you won’t get the poison out. People can be in therapy for years and it won’t do any good if it isn’t hit head-on,” MacFarlane said.
“One of the most important things you can do for victims is to put them together. They have always felt they are the only person this has ever happened to. When they can see others who have the same pain and anger they can start to identify with people who aren’t bad but who have been hurt. This is true whether you are 10 or 40,” she said.
Most adult victims go through a period of mourning for lost childhood, then a time of self-pity. They get past the guilt by learning they have control over the rest of their lives.
“I used to wallow with them in the self-pity stage until I realized I was keeping them trapped,” said MacFarlane. “The things that don’t kill you outright are bound to make you stronger. It can give you a perspective on life that makes you more resilient than other people.”