A study was done on adults who suffered massive war trauma as children. The subjects, almost twenty-years old, predominately lost one or more family members, witnessed atrocities, or witnessed the execution of family members in war.
Most were forced to work in labor camps after being separated from their family. They saw dead bodies, some witnessed babies being killed with bayonets, or the subjects were told they would have their head chopped off.
The study noted that most of the subjects had a conscious memory that contained a traumatic element.
The differences between those children and children who were sexually abused, and who repressed their memories of the trauma, are as follows:
- The children of war had been liberated at some point during their experience by people who confirmed the atrocities, and who probably provided them with some kind of help.
- The children of war had others to validate that the atrocities were in fact happening to them at the time they were experiencing them. There were other prisoners of war in the camps with them, and no one was denying their experiences. They were believed, they were eventually helped, they were able to speak of it, and were told their trauma, abuse, and horrific experience did indeed happen.
- These children did not have the same kind of shame and guilt compared to what happens to a child in cases of child sexual abuse. Shame may occur in prisoners of war when they are forced to relieve themselves in front of others, and degraded as human beings. Guilt may have been a factor in the children of war if they felt like the torturing, or people being killed in front of them, was their fault, or they possibly felt guilt over surviving when others did not. This type of guilt and shame may or may not have happened to the subjects (the study did not mention it) but even if it had, it was not a secret shame, or a secret guilt. Incest and child sexual abuse involves deep-seated personal shame and guilt, often reinforced with threats to keep the secret.
- The children of war were not raped by a parent. They had been forced to work in labor camps, but that seemed to be the extent of trauma to their physical body. More importantly, these children most likely did not engage in family meals, celebrations, or loving moments with their victimizers. Children of war do not have to deal with the confusion that a child experiencing sexual abuse endures –the confusion of trying to find reality in the midst of two conflicting worlds. During the sexual abuse, the child’s world is full of pain, shame, rage, fear, betrayal, guilt, and loneliness. Their other reality is experiencing birthday celebrations, going off to school, Merry Christmas dinners, movies, and trips to Disneyland –often with their rapist.
- Survival for these children of war did not depend upon forgetting what was happening. Survival for the child in sexual abuse cases, especially incest, often means forcing the trauma and emotional pain into another hidden part of their psyche in order to remain a part of the family, to receive some kind of love and attention, and in order to keep the secret.
It is my belief that family denial is a huge part of why people repress memories of trauma in childhood. Most often, everyone around the child, especially the mother, is acting as if nothing is happening. When the abusive acts are not taking place, the perpetrator also behaves as if nothing is going on. The parents are making dinner, going to work, watching television, and acting as if the family is perfectly normal –especially in front of neighbors.
The child might even be told the abuse is their imagination. Many victims of sexual abuse were told this by mothers who discovered the abuse and did not want their husband to go to prison. Many times the child was told by a sibling, teacher, or other authority figure, that what they are saying is not true, that it is a mistake, a dream, or a lie.
When children are liberated from war, people do not tell them they were never in the war, that they did not suffer, and that they imagined the torture or abuse.
Source: Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, William H. Sack, Issue: Sept, 1999, Twelve-year follow-up study of Khmer youths who suffered massive war trauma as children.