Childhood trauma is a uniquely confusing experience. For many of us, the very people whom we were required to rely on for our survival were also the ones threatening it. It’s hard enough to sort out this kind of abuse as an adult, but this disconnect can wreck havoc on a developing brain. Trauma research has come a long way in studying the neurobiology and attachment styles of children who have been abused, and guess what? It’s not such a good way to start a life. According to the ACE study, adverse experiences in childhood are likely to have a lifelong impact on physical, emotional, and mental health. So, how do we better support those who did not have their basic emotional needs met as children? Let’s start off with what childhood trauma survivors do NOT need to hear:
“They were doing their best.”
“They didn’t know any better.”
“It was a long time ago. Things were different back then.”
“You probably don’t remember it right. Are you sure?”
“You can’t prove it.”
“Just put it behind you and move on.”
Childhood trauma survivors have most likely heard all of these extremely toxic statements from time to time from seemingly well-meaning friends and family. For those who experience complex trauma from child abuse, these kinds of statements create such a visceral reaction, it feels like swallowing bleach. The sum of these statements reinforce the abusive environment, re-instating the toxic messages of their abusers. When people make excuses or minimize abuse, what survivors hear are messages like,”I don’t believe you.” “You’re worthless.” “You’re crazy.” “You can’t be trusted.” These negative messages ping-pong in the brain so fast and quick, it can make them feel physically ill. Migraines, digestion problems, autoimmune issues, and chronic fatigue are extremely common among survivors of abuse.
There are three words that are a healing balm to any abuse survivor:
“I believe you.”
Studies have shown that in cases of child sexual abuse, over 96% of the children were telling the truth. And yet, there seems to be some assumption in the zeitgeist that we must not believe victims unless they can prove it. A disproportionate amount of attention goes to being very careful not to falsely accuse the perps. Of course, false accusations need to be vetted, but when 96% of the reports are truthful, doubt about abuse should never be our first reaction.
Many childhood abuse survivors are re-victimized when they finally gather the courage to speak up about their experience. Some have wounds so deep that they are prevented from speaking up again. For those who can gather the courage to keep trying, it can take some time to hear the saving words, “I believe you,” and find the support they need to heal.
If you find yourself in a situation where someone discloses abuse, always respond with “I believe you.” Even if you have doubts, keep them to yourself until you can find an objective way to cross-check. In many cases, proving past abuse is not nearly as important as offering support to a survivor in the present. Focus your attention on what the survivor needs. Help them find resources. Rather than waste energy on trying to “prove” their experience, help them by listening. Validate their perceptions. Help them feel their feelings. They probably took a big risk by disclosing this information to you. Earn their trust by believing them. For good measure, try out a few more good things to say to a childhood trauma survivor:
“I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
“You didn’t deserve that.”
“You matter to me.”
“You are worthy of love.”
“How can I help?”