Why People Deny Childhood Trauma and Its Results

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why do people think they had a good, normal childhood, or deny childhood trauma and its results altogether?

I often hear people say things like:

My childhood was normal. 

Yes, there were some good things and some bad things – but that's life.

My mother got sad, distant, or angry when I didn't perform well or acted badly, and my father sometimes hit me with a belt – but it was for my own good. All of this helped me to become a better person – and I'm thankful for it. 

Yes, sometimes I feel depressed, very lonely, or empty – but we all feel like that. 

My parents were strict, but they loved me and I turned out fine. 

Yes, some people experienced a lot of abuse growing up, but I was never traumatized, and I don't have any inner wounds.

I look at people, and I can very easily see the symptoms of childhood trauma. I see children being abused, and I see grownups with numerous inner wounds that resulted from being traumatized. It’s obvious to me. I see childhood trauma and its effects everywhere around me and all around the world. I see it today, and at any time in human history.

To me, people who deny it look like this:

My leg is severely bleeding, and I'm limping – I have a strong, healthy, fully-functioning leg.

Do you see all these bleeding people? They are completely fine.

Yes, I have been stabbed in the leg with a knife – but I deserved it, and it was for my own good.

Sure, if people say that their childhood was normal, i.e., like other peoples’, then they are right. However “normal” doesn’t mean normal, i.e., healthy and happy – it just means normal, i.e., the social norm.

But if objectively childhood trauma and its effects is such a common phenomenon, both today and historically, then why so many people deny it?

The fundamental reasons are:

1. Dissociative amnesia

Do you know people who don’t remember their childhood, or remember it very vaguely? People who can’t remember years, even decades of their lives?

When children experience severe and prolonged trauma, they often forget it if it feels that retaining this information in your consciousness is too dangerous. When you’re a child it’s often the case. Therefore traumatized children have no other choice but to dissociate. This means pushing your painful experiences into your unconsciousness.

These memories don’t come up consciously if you’re emotionally not ready for it. When people start to heal and grow stronger, they slowly begin to remember and process important – although sometimes very painful – information about their lives.

2. Ignorance and indifference

INDIFFERENCE
From Children Are the Victims of Adult Vices,
a group of sculptures by Mihail Chemiakin
Children don’t know what is abuse, neglect, abandonment, trauma, post-traumatic stress, mental health, healthy childhood, how a healthy human being looks like, and how a healthy relationship looks like. Children don’t have a point of reference, a comparison; they don’t understand their parents’ psycho-emotional history and the socioeconomic status of their environment. They only know what they have experienced and been taught.

For example, if the mother hits her child, the child doesn’t understand all the complex circumstances that led to it. (Often the mother doesn’t understand that too.) All the child knows is that their mother hit them and it hurts – and that they need their mother to survive. Therefore it’s extremely traumatic, and the circumstances that led to it don’t invalidate child’s reactions and emotions.

If the traumatized child grows up, and they haven’t explored their history and the topics of trauma and mental health, they will remain ignorant and indifferent. Sadly, the majority of people are ignorant and indifferent about it. A lot of them do EVERYTHING to remain ignorant – and many of them succeed – since exploring your past and people around you is extremely painful for them. More painful than nonliving.

So it’s not surprising that there is so much dysfunction around us, and that the understanding of mental health is so skewed.

3. Stockholm syndrome

Children who live in an unhealthy environment dissociate and bend reality so that they could survive. “My mother is bad to me. I need my mother to survive. I can’t survive if my mother is bad, and I can’t have another mother. Therefore my mother is good.”

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which the victim empathizes with their abuser, justifies and defends them, or even feels pleasant feelings towards them (for example, think that there’s love between them). This unhealthy bond is seen between a child and their caregiver, a sexual abuse victim and their molester, in unhealthy romantic relationships or friendships, and in other kind of relationships where power disparity is present.

4. Dysfunctional rules / Imposed guilt, shame, and fear

Love your parents! Respect your elders! Listen to authority! Be nice/good [i.e., obedient]! Don't trust yourself, you don't know much! Don't ask questions! Don't talk back! Don't make mistakes! Don‘t feel this way! Get over it! Boys don't cry! Good girls always do what they are told!

If children are traumatized and not allowed to rationally judge their parents’ and other people’s behavior, they start to idealize them, blame themselves, and justify the abuse they suffer. This is the origins of chronic guilt, shame, self-blame, and self-doubt. Emotionally, this is very painful, therefore children (and later as adults) want to avoid this pain, get rid of it, or alleviate it. It’s easier to just say, “My childhood was normal,” and continue the dissociation process.

5. Inability to think rationally

Because most people have experienced significant trauma that is related to thinking and as adults haven’t learned how to think rationally, they don’t have the skills to do it properly. A lot of people don’t know how to objectively evaluate themselves (self-esteem issues), others (trust and poor judgment issues), and the world itself (lack of fundamental understanding of how the world works and various reality distortions). Such people not only lack understanding of what is true, but they don’t know HOW to figure out if something’s true or false.

Since such people lack the ability to think, their belief system, worldview, and daily judgments are for the most part based on their emotions they don’t understand, and not so much on a complex rational evaluation. If it feels good, then it’s true/good; if it feels unpleasant, then it’s false/bad. And afterwards a rationalization is made (since we can’t consciously say to ourselves that it’s true just because it feels good or just because I want it to be true).

Our culture is based on denial, insecurity, inconsistent rules, conformity, and appeal to emotion – not on truth, genuine empathy, consistent and universal principles, individuality, and appeal to reason.

6. Social fear

See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil
As children, in most cases people are just not allowed to talk about the abuse they have suffered. As adults, people avoid to acknowledge the trauma they have experienced and its results, because they are still afraid of other peoples’ reactions: of mockery, minimization, condemnation, laughter, incomprehension, justification of their abusers, attack, etc.

If Person A tells Person B that Person A had a painful childhood, and that he sees the results of child abuse all around them, Person B willingly or unwillingly has to think about his own childhood at least for a little while. It’s very likely that Person B also had a difficult childhood. Therefore for Person B to accept and validate Person A’s traumatic experience would mean – at least to some extent – to accept the painful truth about his own past, current relationships, and society. That would be extremely painful. It’s easier for Person B to act in such a way that Person A would stop talking, so that Person B could retain the fantasy called “I’m OK; everything’s fine.” He can achieve that by using denial, minimization, mockery, angry attack, distraction and other tactics mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Even though it’s true that we are adults now, it’s a different situation, we are not helpless children anymore, and we can speak the truth, but such social reactions for many people can still be very painful and re-traumatizing. [Toxic] people will shun or attack you for speaking about child abuse. Childhood trauma is still a taboo and “norm” in today’s society – and talking “bad,” i.e., the truth, about the people who had power over you (your teachers, priests, and especially family members) is not acceptable. So it’s understandable that even though some people acknowledge the truth on some level, they still might be afraid to talk about this topic openly.

7. Parental guilt

It’s even harder to look into the topic of childhood trauma if you already have your own children. In this case you’re not only dealing with all those complex challenges mentioned above, but there is an additional layer of difficulty: parental responsibility. If you have children before resolving your own personal history and healing your inner wounds, you’ll inevitably traumatize them (it doesn’t matter whether it happens deliberately or ignorantly and with the best of intentions – see Reason #2).

If you’re a parent, then this subject is extremely difficult to explore, because you’re not only processing your relationship with yourself, your parents, teachers, friends, romantic partners, society in general, but also with your child – a person that you’re responsible for. To understand that you have suffered decades of severe trauma and that you have numerous inner wounds is hard enough. But if you have your own child and you start to acknowledge the trauma they have suffered because of you, then this whole process is exceedingly difficult.

8. Lack of empathy

I have written about empathy in my previous articles called “Empathy And Laughing At Others’ Misery” and “The Cycle of Child Abuse and How to End It” therefore I won’t repeat myself here. But in short, empathy is probably one the most important factor in ending the cycle of child abuse and living a truly prosperous life. You can’t feel genuine empathy or sympathy towards others if you are emotionally detached from yourself and your child-self. And you can’t have genuine self-empathy or sympathize with yourself if you haven’t done a significant amount of self-work.

Conclusion

Probably there are more reasons why people deny childhood trauma and its effects, and, as you can see, they are interrelated.

The denial of childhood trauma links to fear/safety (“It’s not safe to think or talk about this and feel how I feel”), and to the dysfunction of one’s emotional and cognitive apparatus in general. This is an extremely painful sphere to explore, and doing so requires a lot of courage, mental capacity, strength, determination, patience, support, and other resources.

So, for those of you who are on this self-archeological journey, who are courageously trying to end the cycle of child abuse, heal, and prosper – I admire you! I know from experience how difficult it is; it can be very painful, sad, lonely, stressful, and sometimes seemingly hopeless experience, so I really admire your courage.

If you want, you can think of me as your ally – even if we have never met or interacted. And, of course, you are always welcome to leave a comment or contact me via any other medium.

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17 comments

  1. Thank you so much for your continued dedication to the exploration of self and history. Your blog posts are an important asset to me in my own journey of self knowledge, de-normalization and healing. Keep it going!

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  2. Excellent post Darius!! I love your comparisons!
    Hugs, Darlene

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  3. Damon, thanks for your appreciation and for letting me know that my work is useful to you -- it makes my work more enjoyable. Best of luck with your journey!

    Darlene, thank you! Greetings from Lithuania!

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  4. This is the most beautiful post I have read about denying childhood trauma. Now I feel relieved that I'm not a crazy and ungrateful person. Thank you for your post and I hope you will continue to inspire other damaged people (like me) to properly heal and become better persons and better parents in the future. =)

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  5. this is excellent, I've heard these phrases so many times when describing abuse

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  6. Great article. I'm the seventh of seven children. I'm trying to understand my past and write about it. I've asked my other siblings to help me fill in some of the blanks, and they don't remember much of our childhood. I've wondered why and now have found the answer. You are right, self discovery can be hard and painful work, but so worth it. Thank you.

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  7. Darius, I am part of a closed Facebook group for Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. Most of our mothers are full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The minimizing you so accurately describe, both by ourselves and especially by others, is a constant source of triggering and re-traumatization.

    As with so many things, being able to explain the mechanism that allows people to feel comfortable defending our NPD mothers and shame us for being open about the often awful behaviors that we grew up with and which, in fact, never stop as we advance in age, is extremely valuable. I will post a link to this page for the group.

    We are almost 1,000 strong, and the support of the DONM community has allowed many of us to acknowledge our own trauma as we support others in their healing and growth. I appreciate that you do your work from Lithuania, and that your perspective validates the universality of the experience. Our members are from all continents, races, all religions, an astonishingly diverse ethnic mix, and aged from late teens to 60's and 70's. I am Danish born, but raised in California from the age of 5.

    We took a poll once, and among those who answered the question "did you choose to have children", about 50% of us did not. We ended the madness in the only way we knew how - by not passing it on.

    I, myself have had decades of therapy to try to cope with both my childhood trauma, and the ongoing emotional abuse from my NPD mother and ineffectual father. Two things have finally focused my healing, the discovery that my mother was NPD (she was a classic of the type) and also Pete Walker's work and writing on Complex PTSD. Focusing on C-PTSD is giving me tools to begin to live again, and I'm just about to turn 64. You are never too old to claim your life back!

    Thank you for your work!

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  8. thank you for this amazing article! This helps me a lot in discovering who I am, knowing I am not the guilty one.

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  9. I am in denial about my life, I try and brainwash myself im normal, cause people shame the hell out of me about my life, and treat me as if im damage and different.

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    1. Now that you have realised your condition by self diagnosis there is hope for you.YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD TO CLAIM YOUR LIFE.

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  10. Great article! It does get extremely stressful! I've been working at it for two years! Luckily I haven't affected any children of my own as I don't have them! But I have affected many friendships along the way of pushing people away when they get too close! My heart is opening and even though I've lost my family this last year even my siblings who is was parentified to bring up emotionally and physically I no I'm on the way to being able to like myself! Thanks for saying we have courage daily it still doesn't feel that way it feels like you've let your family down! And your disgusting for doing so! But that's just the old script isn't it! ;-)

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  11. It's the thought of destroying my own children that pushes me to figure out my past. To stop avoiding those painful memory pieces and actually dig, bringing up old questions to aunts and uncles while there's still time even though no one is excited about the conversations, pushing the subject when it's obviously hitting a tender and addressed spot, and just being as brutally honest and transparent as possible. My extended family comments hour brace and impressive I am, but really it's desperation. I'm desperate to see my own children grow up in a world that makes more sense, and REMEMBER it with a smile!
    I enjoyed your writings and intend to look up a few you mentioned in here. Thank you!

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  12. How do you know that your childhood was actually traumatizing and not just you being ungrateful for what you had...? What if your mom and/or dad just made a few mistakes, but tried their best.. How do you know?

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  13. It's interesting to read obituaries about large families. Often there are many children, now adult, but very few grandchildren. It must be that the parents of large families cannot cope and begin to treat the kids with anger and fatigue and indifference.

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  14. I just wish there was a way to erase my childhood memories and start fresh. The therapist didn't help and my husband sees medications as taboo.

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  15. I feel wrong in wanting to separate from my family because they are genuinely not malicious, just emotionally unsupportive. I have really failed to learn who I am, what excites me, and to thrive up until now and am stuck in a loop of social self isolation. I don't know what I want and change my mind often. Its strange because my grandparents love me a lot and unconditionally. But my mom and I struggle to have a good relationship. I feel like her mother and I am desperate to please her. She and my grandparents genuinely believe that they want me to be happy and thriving but somehow I've ended up in this mess. It feels like I can't be part of the family and still have my own life and yet cannot separate from them. Things feel like such a mess and there is a cultural and intergenerartional component as well. I feel lost and the worst part is that it seems I cannot trust my own mind and emotions

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