Improving outcomes for women impacted by childhood trauma

By Dr Cathy Kezelman, President Adults Surviving Child Abuse

The long-term effects of trauma experienced in childhood are a public health challenge of major proportions. Yet, despite its prevalence and impacts, such trauma often goes unacknowledged, unrecognised and unaddressed. Those affected often fail to receive the help and support they need and experience compounded disadvantage as a result, often right through the life cycle. While boys and men are subjected to a diversity of traumas, sexual abuse, in particular, affects girls and women in greater numbers.

Dr Kezelman

In the 1980’s feminist waves highlighted the often gendered crimes of sexual violence. Sexual abuse was publicly named, personal stories were told and power imbalance and control were identified as key factors in its perpetration. We now hear more reports about child sexual assault and other abuses as well the impacts of growing up with domestic violence. Yet, a persistent collective consciousness of the lived reality of trauma, especially what we call complex trauma escapes us.

When trauma is protracted, repeated and extreme, and perpetrated in childhood by care-givers it comprises complex trauma. Complex trauma is often gendered, interpersonally mediated and so, especially damaging. It occurs with experiences of child abuse in all its forms, chronic neglect, family and community violence and the effects of other adverse childhood events e.g. living with parent with mental illness, who abuses substances, as well as situations of grief, loss and separation.

 Complex trauma affects not only its victims but for those who become mothers, the children they go on to have. It can affect an individual throughout their life cycle or whole families and communities over many generations. Unaddressed childhood trauma can cause difficulties for individuals in learning how to trust others, how to establish healthy relationships and how to care for themselves.

Childhood trauma which is interpersonally mediated affects early attachment dynamics. Individuals who, as children, observe violence in the home, whose have a parent/s who is/are abusive towards the other, or who are themselves abused, will struggle as a result of the changes to their brain development and functioning which arise from this traumatic exposure.

Research suggests that the younger the child, the more harmful the traumatic experiences are in terms of brain development. Those affected may also incorporate abuse into their relationships as adults. Abusive patterns, including gendered attitudes can seem normal to those living them every day. The use/abuse of power and control, experiences of betrayal, secrecy, silence, fear and shame are common elements in families in which abuse/violence occur. In turn all of these factors help perpetuate cycles of violence/abuse.

In our society an estimated 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted in some way prior to the age of 18. While more typically perpetrated by men, women can and do offend.  Sexual violence has long been used as a tool of power and control, instilling and exacerbating fear, helplessness and humiliation in vulnerable populations. Children are inherently vulnerable, and women more susceptible to sexual violence than men. 

As human beings we share a common humanity. Inherent in our humanity is an accompanying vulnerability. War and civil unrest create vulnerable populations, in which, fuelled by the oppression of women within those populations the human rights abuses of violence and sexual violence can and do abound. Within Australia we have our own history of human rights violations. Cultural dislocation and entrenched disadvantage have presided over an epidemic of violence and sexual violence within Indigenous communities, with substantiated rates of child abuse and neglect being 8 times those of non-Indigenous communities. 

Yet child sexual assault in Australia is widespread and not confined to Indigenous communities. We, in Australia, who live in the ‘luck country’, must address the factors which enable child sexual assault to continue unabated. With the announcement of the Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse, we are seeing for the first time a national spotlight shone on the issue. 

However the Terms of Reference mean that abuses, other than those which are sexual in nature, as well as abuses perpetrated in the home and family are not being examined. The Royal Commission and the conversations it has generated are a start. They need to be supported by action in the pursuit of justice as well as by services which are informed about complex trauma and its impacts, services which are accessible and affordable to the large numbers of victims/survivors of all ages needing them. 

While we have evidenced some changes in our societal approach to child abuse and domestic violence in Australia we have a long way to go in combating the collective denial, stigma and taboo which would still rather not speak about the ‘unspeakable’.  

It is contingent upon all parties, in government as well as opposition to take a bi-partisan approach to issues of trauma, violence and abuse. To support survivors as they come forward and speak to the Royal Commission and other inquiries, and ensure that as a society we take whatever steps we can to protect the most vulnerable amongst us and provide child and adult victims with the ‘trauma-informed’ support they need to reclaim their lives and overcome the repercussions of the often gendered assaults of power.

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