Child abuse and neglect encompasses lifelong consequences due to what I have identified as a “Cycle of Trauma.”1 We, as survivors, don’t realize until much later in life that the methods we developed and used to cope as children are carried forward into our adult lives. I’ll discuss four aspects of the trauma cycle, both in childhood and then how it is carried forward into adulthood. It begins with what I call the “original setup.”
Original Setup: What this means is that there is a failure of the mother and father to parent with love and respect. There may be marital and/or substance abuse problems, or other issues. But the unsuspecting child, like me when I was going through it, has no frame of reference, and he/she depends on his/her parents for survival. Children naturally look for love and affection, but in an abusive household, children get caught up in the tangled web of their parents who act out their emotions on the most vulnerable members of the family, the ones who can’t fight back. So, a child can’t reconcile the fact that the people who are supposed to be loving and caring for them are actually abusing them. Just like children of parents who are getting a divorce, what do they think? That it is their fault. That is what abused children think. So, that is the original setup.
Emotional Blackmail: When a child gets older, the child feels worthless, and is filled with enormous shame and self-hate. But what they don’t realize is that they have been blackmailed by their abusers that somehow by responding to innocent needs for affection, they were the cause of their own abuse. And, of course, this is perpetuated by the offending parents to make sure that their criminal behaviors are kept a secret. “Don’t you open your mouth!” is what we, as survivors are told. So, now you can imagine the mass confusion an older child or teenager starts to feel when they try to understand what is happening to them.
Learned Helplessness: This leads us to the third part of the cycle because the situation becomes complicated by what is called “learned helplessness.” And that is that no matter what the child does to try and get away from their abuser or save him/herself, they learn that nothing works. There are actual studies where they have taken dogs and put them into a wired cage, and when they try to get out, they get a shock. So after getting a shock every time they try to get out, they learn that they are totally helpless. The same thing happens with children. They learn that nothing works, so they develop “learned helplessness.” This also helps to keep the secret within the family which leads me to the last part of the cycle which is called the stress-response cycle.
Stress-Response Cycle: With all of this conditioning by their parents telling them not to “open their mouths,” the learned helplessness, and the enormous shame and self-hate, the teenager then turns inward and starts using self-harm to reduce their stress. This can be everything from eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, self-mutilation, and attempted suicide. They have learned the anger must be directed at him/herself, they can’t express it, and they self-soothe the best way they know how.
When the child becomes an adult, if they are not able to get help with overcoming their trauma, the four elements of the cycle are reinforced. Again, it begins with the “Original Setup.”
Original Setup: No one has ever addressed this old baggage with the survivor. The survivor believes his/her situation is unique. He/she believes that very few families abuse their children. They have no way of knowing, however, that 80% of perpetrators are the children’s own parents, so they believe everyone else is normal. They, like I did, don’t believe that the world is like what they grew up in. They have no idea, though, how much they have been conditioned by their family and abusers to be the scapegoat and keep quiet. They haven’t developed healthy self-management skills and get into risky behaviors because deep down they still believe that they caused the abuse, but they are too shameful to tell anyone.
Emotional Blackmail: Now the second piece of this kicks in which is “emotional blackmail,” when for whatever reason—a divorce, the birth of a child, or other stressor, all of these painful memories start surfacing. Survivors try to reach out for help, probably for the very first time, and what do they encounter from other people? The same old messages they got from their abusers: “Keep it to yourself.” “Don’t tell anyone, it will be a bad reflection on your family.” Guilt questions: “Why didn’t you tell someone?” Shaming statements like: “That happened a long time ago. Get over it.” In other words, “Stop whining.”
Learned Helplessness: And that leads to the next part of the cycle which is “learned helplessness.” Survivors can’t believe this is happening all over again. They reach out, they try to be vulnerable, and they get the same identical messages they got from their abusers not knowing they are being conditioned unconsciously the exact same way with learned helplessness. Now they still believe that nobody cares, nobody is listening, they believe they can’t help themselves, so what do they do? The same thing they learned as a child.
Stress-Response Cycle: “I have to turn it inward to soothe myself.” They use the stress-response cycle which means sex, drugs, alcohol, food, self-mutilation, and when the pain gets too deep, they have thoughts of suicide. Unless they can get help in therapy or other supportive measures, this behavior will continue for the rest of their life. If you are never shown anything different, you will probably continue behaving in the same way.
 E Diane Champé, E Diane Champé Institute, 2014