“Mom, someone hurt me” — What She Said Next Matters a Lot

When something novel happens babies and small children will look to their parents to see how they should react. Their parent’s reaction then serves as a guide for how they should respond to this new thing or situation. From their parent’s reaction the baby will be trying to interpret whether this experience is safe, dangerous, exciting, etc. We are looking for our parents to tell us how we should feel.

When we are babies and young children with very little understanding of the world it is crucial for survival that we rely on our parents to help us navigate safety and danger. But even as we get older, it is important to our social brains that we react, think, emote similarly to the important people around us. We are always seeking connection and sameness. It’s painful to be perceived as being on the outside of something.

And it might even be dangerous. As a species we are mostly physically defenseless by ourselves. We don’t have particularly long claws, sharp teeth, tough skin, or sharp senses as compared to other animals. But in a group we are much more protected. Our abilities to communicate, anticipate the future, plan, build, work together, etc. is where our strengths really lie. We instinctually seek each other out.

To be connected with others = safety.

Disconnected = danger.

This means that when something bad happens to us we will look to others for comfort & support. But we are also looking to others with an implicit question: how should I think about this? How should I feel about this?

Let’s use an example of a child who has experienced sexual abuse and how their parent’s response might be internalized by the child. Before telling the parent the child might feel disgusted, fearful, and confused.

If the parent says to their child:

I don’t believe you.

The child learns:

I can’t trust myself. I can’t trust my own experiences, memory, feelings, etc. Dissociation can occur – a split self with a part that remembers what happened and a part that seeks to fit in with family who doesn’t remember what happened.

What did you do to make him interested in you?

It’s my fault. I’m disgusting. Bad things happen because there is something wrong with me.

It’s not that big of a deal. Don’t tell anyone else.

My feelings aren’t valid. I exaggerate things. I’m not that important. I’m not worthy of protection.

I am sorry that happened to you. I am going to protect you. Your feelings make sense given what happened. We’re going to help you through this.

I am valued and loved. I am worthy of protection. I am a part of my family. I belong.

Now imagine how each of these implicit beliefs can follow the survivor through life if there is no intervention.

If I can’t trust myself I can’t trust my gut instincts about others either. It might be hard for me to identify red, yellow, or green flags in relationships. If I am disconnected from my own memories I might feel confused about who I really am. It might feel inexplicable why I experience nightmares and feel so anxious all the time. I generally feel unsafe in the world.

If I believe there is something innately wrong with me, I might think I deserve bad things when they happen. I might find it strangely validating to be with an abusive partner who punishes me for all the thing I do wrong because I believe I am bad. I only feel safe in the world when bad things are happening to me because that fits my view of myself.

If my feelings aren’t valid I might learn to ignore them and purely focus on others around me being happy. I might feel numb and emotionless. Being out of touch with how I’m feeling makes me ambivalent about staying in the world.

If I am worthy, valid, and belong here then I’m not going to tolerate being treated any differently from that. It will be easier for me to accept criticism without shame spiraling. I can own up to my mistakes. I will not apologize or capitulate when I have done nothing wrong. I generally feel safe in the world.

Sometimes children can handle a one time shitty response if the bad thing wasn’t that major. But chronically getting messages like these shifts the way we see ourselves and the world.

So what do you do about this? You’re probably not going to be surprised to hear a trauma expert say: EMDR. EMDR helps people not only with any PTSD reaction from the bad things that have happened but also from the underlying beliefs. It not only changes our feelings about the experiences so they no longer feel bad but EMDR also changes our beliefs we developed as a result of the trauma and the responses of others.

The kid who experienced sexual abuse and learned to believe they were at fault or that there is something inherently wrong with them can turn into an adult who knows, in a deeply felt way, that the abuse was not their fault. And there is truly nothing wrong with them.