The Complex Nature Of Trauma And Abuse

January 22, 2019  |  

Teenage girl (14-16) in front of group, with pensive expression

Source: Penny Tweedie / Getty

By Shadeen Francis

The six-episode docuseries Surviving R. Kelly raised many questions about the nature of consent, the influence of stardom, and community culpability in responding to assault allegations. Beyond individual views of reasonable consequences or personal opinions about the subjects of the interviews, Surviving R. Kelly provides an opportunity for audiences to better understand the complex nature of trauma and abuse which leads many to ask questions like, “Why didn’t anyone speak up sooner?” and “How could someone who was abused himself go on to abuse others?”

What is Trauma?

A trauma is any experience that has significant detrimental effects on psychological, emotional, and physical well-being, such as the experiences of sexual assault, domestic violence, emotional abuse, and predatory behavior, cataloged in the docuseries.

What’s the Impact?

As a licensed psychotherapist, I have worked with numerous clients whose past experiences with trauma impact their everyday lives in significant, sometimes debilitating ways. There is a wide range of symptoms that come from relationship violence and abuse, including:

  • Behavioral challenges: self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse, danger-seeking or a lack of attention to safety, sleep disorders.
  • Psychological pains: depression, anxiety, suicidality, numbness, shame, guilt, denial, phobias, dissociation, flashbacks, nightmares, fear, self-loathing.
  • Relationship barriers: lack of trust, poor boundaries, inability to assert oneself, dependence, isolation, conflict avoidance.

These effects aren’t always easy to deal with. Some traumas are so intense, lengthy, or impactful that people may not ever fully “heal.” However, in all cases, it is true that with the right support, trauma symptoms can be managed and folks can build a healthy lifestyle.

Do Survivors Become Abusers?

Some survivors are able to access resources and receive help. When adequate support isn’t available, unresolved traumas from a person’s past can heavily influence their present and future. One of the most painful ways this can occur is through transgenerational transmission of abuse – the passing of harm from one generation to the next. This is seen most often in cases of domestic violence, emotional neglect, and incest. Despite parents wanting better for their children than they experienced themselves, without support, many lack the tools to avoid recreating the exact same climate of abuse as they saw in their own families. As a result, children do not learn healthy ways to problem-solve, manage emotions, or navigate relationships. This ultimately creates multigenerational legacies of trauma.

Parents who were abused themselves can develop many problems that impact their abilities to parent well. Their trauma histories play a role in their ability, or inability, to recognize warning signs, teach and help their children maintain healthy boundaries with others, demonstrate that they can be safe people to report to, and handle trauma disclosures in a calm, compassionate, and direct manner. In the case of sexual violence within families, the inappropriate sexualization of children and lack of boundaries may be recreated in their households as adults, or parents may never discuss sex at all to avoid being triggered, which often keeps their children from having the age-appropriate information about topics like consent and body autonomy they need to make healthy choices and be safe with others. Without intervention, more than a third of men abused as children become abusers themselves (abuse perpetrated by women is not linked to childhood abuse). The primary difference between those who offend and those who don’t is the support they receive after the offenses and their belief that they are genuinely loved and wanted by people who will not bring them harm.

Why Don’t People Report?

I am asked often why survivors of abuse don’t seek justice or legal action sooner, and the reality is the majority don’t disclose at all. A big reason for that is shame: research on unreported incidents found that many people are simply “too ashamed” to come forward. Shame makes you feel small, worthless, and unlovable, which keeps people from speaking up. Men have an especially hard time reporting because societal pressures of hyper-masculinity make it nearly impossible for a man to say he was harmed without the threat of emasculation and ridicule. As it stands, people are shamed, scrutinized, and punished if their reports become public, which discourages others from coming forward. If you’ve read the social media reactions to the series, you’ve seen this in action.

Another barrier to reporting is feelings of guilt and self-blame. Trauma survivors tend to blame themselves for their own victimization and feel like they should have done more to keep themselves safe. Out of fear of having this reinforced by others, many survivors keep quiet. This is especially true for children and young adults. Research done on children aged 12 to 18 demonstrated that only 5% of those who experienced various forms of unwanted sexual touch reported the incident to police, and only 25% confided in any authority figure, assuming they told anyone at all. Their reasons included not being sure of whether the experience was inappropriate (“does that count?”), not wanting to attract negative attention, and, when the person was someone they knew, they wanted to appear loyal and try to resolve it on their own.

To cope with the pain of their experiences, many will deny or minimize the abuse by arguing that it wasn’t that bad or softening the story. The brain seeks to protect itself from trauma, and one way that it does this is from disconnecting from threatening experiences. This is why many survivors have unclear memories of their abuse, particularly those involving sexual assault or near-death experiences – while some painful experiences are imprinted in vivid detail, others disconnect us from our bodies in order to minimize the psychological damage. This process (called dissociation) adds increased difficulty to reporting. Since legal testimony requires detailed stories in order to prosecute, survivors with unclear memories are often met with skepticism and suspicion. If survivors don’t think that people will respond in non-blaming, supportive ways, they are unlikely to report to anyone and have much worse long-term outcomes.

Other factors that prevent timely reporting have to do with the context of the relationship to the abuser. Does the survivor know the person? Are they afraid of the consequences of reporting or leaving their abuser? Do they have kids together? Is the person financially dependent on their abuser? All of these possibilities need to be considered when questioning why people don’t report abuse.

How Do We Move Forward?

Here is a sobering truth: even people we respect and admire can cause incredible harm. Friends, neighbors, parent, seniors, young people – all are capable of being ugly, cruel, or violent. If you look at national statistics on the rates and prevalence of sexual violence alone, we are confronted with the sobering realities. Denying the truth of that does not prevent or minimize it; in fact, the silence and avoidance actually perpetuates and allows for injustices to continue.

So, what can we do to interrupt trauma legacies and minimize the opportunities for future harm? Here are some actionable ideas:

  • Seek support: Survivors and their loved ones can almost always benefit from therapy to deal with the psychological effects of trauma. Consider talking to a therapist or similar support person to develop coping mechanisms, heal old wounds, and learn skills to prevent recreating trauma in their families. Those who have abused and harmed others also benefit from therapy as part of their rehabilitation plans.
  • Get educated: there is a lot of misinformation about consent, abuse, and legality. Opinions are cool, but it is better to get informed. Share what you’ve learned with your children, your friends, your partners, and your peers.
  • Believe people who are brave enough to report: While it does happen, false reports are rare, making up between 2% and 10% of claims*. Check in on the biases present in your disbelief: why don’t you believe them?
  • Pay attention to warning signs: If you notice someone close to you displaying the signs or symptoms of abuse, get curious about it. While we always respecting people’s right to privacy and autonomy, being caring about the wellbeing of others is important as well. Gently express concerns when you have them, and if there are ways you can be of support, let the person know you are willing.
  • Hold abusers accountable: Social factors like wealth, status, and reputation, should not excuse violent behaviour. We may not be one another’s keepers, but everyone plays a role in maintaining abuse.

As adults, we are all held accountable for our actions. Without acknowledgment and action, people will continue to harm others without facing consequences; necessary safety-building information does not get shared; and events that do occur go unnoticed, unbelieved, unaddressed, or unreported. Regardless of your views on the R&B musician, the women who have come forward, or the series itself, these conversations are meaningful. In doing so, there is hope that we can better address the aftermath of public and private reports, and work towards healing and restoration as a community.

*Based on data on reported rapes

Shadeen Francis, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist, professor, and author that specializes in sex therapy and social justice. Because of her unique expertise and ability to tackle difficult subjects with warmth and humour, Shadeen is sought internationally to help people live in peace and pleasure.

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