Why Children of War Remember Their Trauma and Child Sexual Abuse Victims Often Do Not

 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.

This entry was posted in Child Abuse, child molestation, child sexual abuse, Crime, Denial, evil, rape and abuse and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Why Children of War Remember Their Trauma and Child Sexual Abuse Victims Often Do Not

  1. Rachel Myers says:

    This is so true! Because of all the happy memories–we DID go to Disneyland!–we DID have dinner every night at exactly 5:30 pm,–we DID (except mom) go to church every Sunday–because of these memories, it is hard to believe that my family was sick, and that dad sexually abused us, and that mom knew and decided to allow it, and lie about it forever. I don’t have most of the memories. I think EMDR might be the way to go, for me.

    • Jess says:

      Emdr is awesome, love it love it love it.

      • Rachel Myers says:

        Jess, thank you for the encouragement for getting EMDR. I needed that.

        • Jess says:

          Take it from someone who’s doing it, it helps. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to see and feel the memories slowly lose their power. Good luck!

          • Rachel Myers says:

            Did the EMDR help with memories that had not been available? Or did it just help with memories that had been in your conscious mind all along? I have always had two memories that I never labelled as sexual abuse, until I started talking. But I have evidence of some really traumatic stuff, which proves that my mom and dad are not the nice people they pretend to be. My evidence shows that some really sick, traumatic stuff was done to me, and not just twice, but from my early childhood, all through high school. And I just don’t remember. I know that at least once, I blacked out and came to, later.

            • Jess says:

              It helped with both, the ones I can remember and those that I can’t. There are diff ways to store memories not just visually…so sometimes you can just use what you have acres to like physical sensations or bad feelings, etc. I also had a memory that came up in a visual way once I did emdr on just the physical sensation I kept having and suddenly I was able to remember it fully.

              • Rachel Myers says:

                Way cool how EMDR brought you that visual memory. I just started reading the book In An Unspoken Voice, by Peter A Levine, Ph.D. and he’s already said some really cool stuff about how trauma can be healed, and how visual memory plays into that.

    • We did all those happy things too and it really DOES make you doubt your own reality! EMDR can really be helpful. I did it and two other survivors from my family did too. It helped a lot. I hope you find what works for you Rachel. ❤

      • Rachel Myers says:

        I asked Jess, above, and I want to ask you too–Did the EMDR help with memories that had not been available? Or did it just help with memories that had been in your conscious mind all along?

        • One of the things I’ve struggled with most during my recovery has been the lack of memories. I’m someone who wants proof. Evidence. Unfortunately, for me, I didn’t really get any new memories directly from EMDR. Mine have been very resistant. I did, however, make new connections to things and made sense of other sensory “memories”/body memories. I sometimes still want proof, but I’ve finally come to the place where I don’t need the proof in order to heal. My abuse started when I was an infant and continued through my teens. Dissociation saved my life but it also cost me my memories. Like a blessing and a curse at the same time.

          • Alethea says:

            Great comment Gabrielle.

            It is definitely a blessing and a curse.

            My validation has only come through the physical and psychological problems disappearing with the therapy I do. We cannot heal from false memories…that would be a pretty good trick. If it were possible, everyone who has ever been sick with disease or illness could invent anything they like, and then heal or cure, themselves of the disease.

            I have had some validation from some of my sisters in things they have told me about our childhood, and by the reaction of my mother when I first came out with the abuse, but often, true validation doesn’t come until we accept, and are at peace, with our memories.

            Questioning ourselves too much can create more problems.

            For me, it’s like those murder cases where everything points to murder, and even who the killer is, but police could never find the body. There is often a conviction in cases with no dead body, so be in peace that the body may never be found, but that there is enough evidence to validate the abuse.

  2. melissa lee says:

    This is one the most difficult parts of the healing process.
    The child in us that still hopes for some connection, even if we would rather it be abuse, then the thought of having “nothing at all”… It often calls for a complete split from the birth family.

    Melissa Lee

    • Alethea says:

      Melissa Lee (((Big hug))) Yes. Like I have written in my memoir…it was the price I was willing to pay as a child.

      As an adult, no way. I would rather be alone than have a superficial relationship with people who have invalidated me as a human being, and who want to live a lie.

      • Little Nel says:

        I love how you stated this, Alethea.

        We are hurt, confused, and needy as a child. Clueless as to what was done.

        As an adult we have knowledge as to what mindset and values our family adhered to. We have uncovered those hurtful abusive things, which are rooted in lies.

        This puts us at odds with the ones who still cling to the lies.

    • Jess says:

      Completely agreed

    • It’s that desire for the connection that kept me stuck and in denial for years. Its so sad because we ALL deserved better. ❤

  3. Little Nel says:

    Yes, it’s really crappy that we have to keep “the secret” to survive, only to have the shadows of “those” memories surface in spite of our best efforts to dispose of “the secret” and/or keep it hidden.

    Our efforts to get validation and support from our family can become another source of unwanted anguish. It’s an ongoing fight for clarity and liberation.

    • Alethea says:

      True LN.

      Families who attack, cut off, or vilify the adult survivor when they are trying to heal, can easily re-wound the person and they then have to heal from both the child sexual abuse, AND from being abused by the family members who want the secret kept hidden.

  4. L.Day says:

    Hi, This is a bit off subject but here goes.
    I was just wondering is it ever permissible for a boy and a girl to share the same room.
    I was in a recent discussion with someone about this. .
    The lady I speak of has a 10 year old daughter and a son 15 and lives in a 2 bedroom apartment. She lets the 10 year old girl sleep in her bed due to she has only two bedrooms. She mentioned she would keep it that way for now. I panicked and I thought she may in the future let the boy and girl share a room. She told me she would never ever do that. What a relief! Is this okay at young ages ?

    • Alethea says:

      It would be a recipe for child sexual abuse. I don’t care how “wonderful” a 15 year-old boy might be as a human being…..no child is perfect, and the teen years are the most self-centered years of the human soul, and 15 year-old boys are full of raging hormones and can easily lack self-control.

      • L.Day says:

        I agree with everything you have said. This stuff or sexual abuse sure is scary. Thanks for answering my question. My older brother attempted to sexual assault me and my younger sister. He did not sleep in the same room with us. I can only imagine what he would have done if he slept in our bedroom with us. Yikes…..

  5. Jess says:

    I could not agree more with this article.

  6. I really appreciate this blog and especially this post. I am a 49 year old incest survivor and it has taken me decades of work to FINALLY see that what I endured not only tortured my body, but my mind as well. I was drawn to this blog by your title. We really did sit across the table from each other. It’s those intimate “normal” moments that really confused me for years. We lived in a nice house. I never went hungry. I had toys and a dog and my parents were married. My father/abuser was the captain of our police department and my mother/enabler was a teacher’s aide for special needs children. Our family looked so normal and so upstanding. Nobody believed me and nobody protected me. Both parents died without validating my experience or apologizing. It took me YEARS of hard work, but I have recently turned a corner in my healing. Blogs like yours and courageous survivors like those here have made a difference for me. Thank you for doing what you do!

    • L.Day says:

      Blogs like yours and courageous survivors like those here have made a difference for me.
      _I agree as far as blogs like this one and other survivors helping me. In some ways they have been more helpful than therapists ever have been. I like talking to someone who can relate to my SA and someone who is transparent as well. Take gentle care. I am sorry for what you have endured.

    • Alethea says:

      No, thank YOU Gabrielle 🙂

      Sometimes I think my Blog is not helping, so I REALLY appreciate the feedback. You are awesome and strong. Congratulations on the turning point in your healing.

      My father was a police officer too.

      Wishing you the best,

      • Rachel Myers says:

        Alethea, your blog is the best blog ever. This particular post is one of the most helpful and validating things I’ve ever come across, For 12 years, I was denying the truth of what I knew–and because I don’t have most of the memories in my conscious mind for what I have evidence of–it hurt really bad. The reason I was able to deny the truth and beat myself up for not remembering–was because I didn’t realize this stuff that is listed in this post.

        • Alethea says:

          Rachel (((big hug))) thank you SO much. I need to hear when a particular post really helps someone.

          Thank you 🙂

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