Mental Defense Systems in Sexually Abused Children

Abused children will do anything they can in order defend their survival. This includes “fantasy escapes,” or by forcibly attempting to drive the events from consciousness.

When Dr. Joy Silberg asks her child patients to recall their trauma, they reply, “Don’t ask me. It hurts my brain.”

These victims are actively trying to compel the events out of their mind.

A good example of how the mind defends itself is the case of a woman who had no conscious awareness of any child abuse, yet she was troubled by rage. When her therapist asked her to draw a picture of what had caused her anger, an instantaneous flood of hidden emotions were provoked. Without knowing why, the woman drew a picture of the Catholic Church she had attended as a small child. A short time later she began to recall being sexually abused by her childhood priest.

Validation for the woman’s memories was established when she and her husband did some investigating and found that three years earlier, the priest pleaded guilty to molesting a ten year-old girl and was serving time in prison.

Another example is how the mind can sometimes use symbols for traumatic events. Two books, The Courage to Heal and Uncovering Memories of Sexual Abuse in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, both discuss women who remember a knife as what penetrated them instead of a penis.

To a small child, the first time a penis is forced inside their vagina or rectum, it can feel as if they have been penetrated by a knife.  I can attest to this first-hand.

Traumatic memories can surface in other protective ways. One woman had been experiencing moments of vaginal pain along with flashes of lollipops. In therapy she remembered molestation that had taken place on routine visits to her pediatrician.

At first, the woman thought she had been molested with a lollipop. However, when she relayed her newly recalled memories to her parents, they told her she had been sexually abused as a child by the family doctor, who had given her a lollipop after each visit.

The more severe abuse, or psychologically damaging aspect of sexual abuse, usually shows itself as treatment progresses, or even towards the end of therapy.

Children, who have just been removed from an abusive situation, commonly disclose the least terrifying, or the less intense parts of being sexually abused, before finally reporting the more severe trauma.

Adult survivors of sexual abuse and trauma, who are still blocking out certain experiences, allow themselves to remember the abuse in essentially the same way.

However, some people might think that being raped by a parent, or having been threatened with death with a knife, would be the worst part of having been traumatized and emotionally scarred as a child. But when sexual abuse is not recalled until adulthood, the most emotionally painful event often emerges after memories of a physically violent rape or terrifying experiences are recalled.

It has been my personal experience, and of others, that memories of the emotional attachment to the perpetrator and any sexual stimulation a victim might feel, usually come back to the adult survivor much later in the healing work.

Most adult survivors keep extremely painful truths hidden from themselves for a very long time. This can include that some of the sexual abuse felt good, that they wanted it, or that they felt sad if it ended.

For other people, the deep and powerful emotional pain can be remembering sexual abuse by a family member of the same-sex, and that it felt good. Or that the person had an orgasm with their perpetrator.

A five year old girl provides us with an understanding of how dissociation works…

The child had seen her father fatally shoot her mother and then watched him commit suicide. Five weeks later, the child was asked what her worst experience in life had been. In that moment, she was observed as having “a marked alteration in her facial expression.” She stopped playing, turned her face away from the interviewer and stared into space. After a long pause, the child stated, “I wanted to stay up late last weekend and have pizza, but I had to go to bed.” Directly following her remark, the girl gave only single word responses in the interview. The question clearly evoked the trauma within her but she dissociated from it by thinking about the pizza weekend.

An adult survivor gave her account of what she did as a child in order to remove herself from the pain. She said, “I concentrate on the sound of the rain and think about tomorrow.”

This system is a self-survival system. But it only works for so long, and one day, the memories beg to come through to consciousness. When this happens, the adult survivor will begin to develop serious problems like self-punishment, self-sabotage, destructive behaviors, self-hatred, self-abuse, eating disorders, and other psychologically-induced physical illnesses.

When do not deal with the subconscious mind, it deals with us.



Memories Called Key in Abuse Suits, Beth Miller, The News Journal, April 13, 2007

The Recovered Memory Project” Ross Cheit, “Woman relies on Repressed Memory in Alleging Priest Abuse” Maine Sunday Telegram October 26 1997: 1B

The Courage to Heal, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, page 90

Uncovering Memories of Sexual Abuse in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Charlotte Prozan, Construction and Reconstruction of Memory: Dilemmas of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Charlotte Prozan Editor, Jason Aaronson Inc., 1997, page 126

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, Updated Third Edition, HarperCollins, 1994, page 90

Behind the Playground Walls: Sexual Abuse in Preschools, Jill Waterman Ph.D, Robert J. Kelly Ph.D, Mary Kay Oliveri MSW, Jane Mc Cord, Ph.D, 1993, The Guilford Press page 68

Memories of Fear How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. The Child Trauma Academy  Academy version of a chapter originally appearing in “Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma” (Edited by J. Goodwin and R. Attias) Basic Books (1999)

The Voice of Memory: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim the Past, Beatriz Terrazas, Dallas Morning News, June 11, 2000

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