Having a voice about childhood abuse

Having a voice about childhood abuse

Post show presentation by Antonia Bifulco following the performance of ‘Can I start again please’ by Sue MacLaine.


I would like to congratulate Sue MacClaine and Nadia Nadarajah for the performance we have all just experienced. It is a powerful, evocative and thoughtful work about issues around childhood sexual abuse. It considers how such experiences are understood, communicated and translated to us all as different types of listeners’. It hasno doubt affected us all, but probably in different ways.


I am a psychologist – a researcher and academic from the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University – and have spent much of my adult life investigating different types of childhood abuse.


Using a lifespan approach, I have studied these in relation to adult clinical disorder, particularly the emotional disorders of Depression and Anxiety. This has involved exploringlife histories by interview of many hundreds of adults to learn about their childhood and early teenage experience. The analysis examined how they emerged in terms of their later relationships and self-esteem compared to those non-abused. The picture that emerges is complex but I thinkeasy for us to comprehend.




Losing trust in childhood from those responsible for us is key. It can lead to a long term problem in getting close to others.


This can be through fear of abandonment, fear of rejection or angry distancing. This in turn leads to a lack of love and support which makes the world feel a more dangerous and less caring place to live. This creates vulnerability to stress. When we experience life events in the form of relationship breakdown, bereavement, problems with children or threats to our work, housing or finance, we have no one to go to for support, to provide us with the help we need.In such circumstances emotional disorder is much more likely to occur.


I would like to discuss some of the themes raised in the playfrom a psychologist’s point of view. This is with the hope of informing but also leaving open perhaps, more questions about our society and how we protect our young and help those vulnerable.




The play quotes his statement ‘whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’. This has many meanings. For an academic researcher this may refer to the necessity of having evidencebefore we speak with any authority.


Evidence has been collected about childhood abuse particularly since the 1980s, by a number of researchers including my own team.We have learned a lot about it.


For example child abuse is common in the community with around 1 in 4 of us having suffered severe neglect or abuse in early life. Around 15% will have experienced sexual abuse in childhood. This is more common in girls, but has equal ill-effects in boys.


We also know there are many types of child maltreatment. Whilst physical and sexual abuse are given wide media coverage, less attention is given to neglect or emotional abuse. All these experiences have perniciouseffects. Sexual abuse is perhaps the most damaging, leading to 7 times more likelihood of adult clinical disorder.




The context of experience is mentioned in the play, and this is important. Each person’s experience of abuse is both similar and highly individual. The differences can involve co-existence of other abuse and relationship to abuser.


For one thing, abusive experiences co-exist. So for some children sexual abuse will be but one of many forms of assault or victimisation. The more types of abuse experienced the higher likelihood of dysfunction in later life – a clear ‘dose effect’ – between amount of abuse and amount of disorder.


Another variation in experience is due to the source of the maltreatment. Whilst we think mainly of parents in relation to neglect and physical abuse,sexual abuse can comefrom a wide range of adults, those well known, less well known or strangers.


Often it is those who have authority over children. Damage done to the children is in part through the hypocrisy involved in such violation of trust and the lies and falsehood of the relationship developed.




Many abused children ‘have no voice’ and either do not, or cannot ask for help, or their requests for help go unheard. There are many social, psychological and physical barriers.


One barrier is through conflict of loyalties. Children don’t want to be responsible for losing their parents and having one put in prison. We need to understand that children attach themselves even to abusive parents.


Another barrier is ignorance – some children do not understanding the nature of their own abuse and may have been told by their abusers that their experiences are ‘normal’.


Another barrier is fear: some are afraid to report the abuse because of threatened reprisals, to themselves or to others.


Another issue is having no one to tell. Some simply have no one theytrust to go to. When there is disability, there are yet other physical constraints on disclosure.




The play gives the quotes ‘he who keeps silent is assumed to consent’. (We would probably say ‘she’ in this context).


Yet children cannot give or withhold consent to exploitative sexual relationships any more than they can give consent to being beaten or starved. They may appear compliant because they are trusting of their abusers who manipulate such trust.


In some cases prior sexual abuse may lead to precocious sexual behaviour in later encounters. This is however not consent in those underage and those vulnerable.




Another reason that children may have no voice (as described in the play) is that their experience is one they are unable to articulate.


There are additional psychological constraints to do with memory and the way the brain encodes experience. Traumatic experience can become locked in the brain with no easy conscious access – its effects are shown through flashbacks, nightmares, reliving or even blanking out all memory.


‘Dissociation’occurs – which is a form of psychological disconnection.This is the way the brain deals with severe threat to life and the self, through a ‘disconnect’ in the mind.


Thus the individual’s sense of identity, memories, self-perception and view of the world are all subject to such disconnection. It starts with a detachment from the abusive experience itself. Often the child will report being outside their own body looking down at themselves. This creates a short-term relief from pain.


But the disconnect can be long lasting, continuing into later life, where it impedes the normal processing of stress, and makes relationships more difficult and the sense of self disturbed.


The memory/understanding of the abuse can remain locked in the brain for a long period of time. Access can be through therapeutic approaches or close, sensitive attachment from others.


The aftermath:


The impacts of childhood abuse are immediate but also long term throughout life.


Victims can go on to have repeated depressions or other disorders throughout their lives. The impact can last for decades.


Childhood abuse erodes trust and a sense of safety which can be long lasting. Mistrust is associated with problems in attachment (or relating) styles leading to fearful over dependence or angry avoidance or detachment.


These create barriers for confiding at time of need, receiving support and building resilience.


The Reckoning:


So we can ask ourselves whether all the research knowledge has changed our society in terms of childhood abuse, including sexual abuse?


In some ways the answer is ‘yes’ and we have come a long way from say the 1950s.


o We now have a language to talk about childhood abuse, which did not exist in earlier times,
o we have anonymous child helplines,
o we have more awareness by the public of the risks involved.
o I believe more adults would now intervene if they were aware of abuse happening.
o Practitioners such as teachers, social workers, police etc, have specialist training in how to help children and apprehend their abusers.
o We have a legal framework which makes the sanctions against abusers clear and punitive. We have policies and procedures in place to protect children in public places.
o In addition we have successful therapeutic treatments for individuals who have suffered the painful aftermath of abuse.


But we still have a long way to go.


o For example we are still not as aware as we should be about the locations and opportunities for abuse, how victims can be selected and how abuse can be covered up.
o We have now heard about the hundreds of victims targeted by Saville over many decades and how this was kept silent.
– Even though it seems many knew or suspected what was going on and indeed many victims made complaint to no avail.
– Hopefully we are now more aware of the social protection offered to celebrities and politicians but not to the children they may have contact with.
o Also as a society we have not been sufficiently alert to cases in local authority care such as in Rochdale, Oxfordshire and Derbyshire. Here the very children meant to be protected by the state have been targeted by organised groups of abusers.
– Practitioners either turned a blind eye, or believed these young adolescents had a life choice to engage in such exploitative sexual behaviour. This is a serious misjudgement.
o Other instances of abuse which have come to light after decades of silence have been in religious settings with priests shown to have manipulated the trust and power invested in them.

o In recent times, a new location for enticing children for abuse, is through the internet and social networking sites. Here children can be targeted in the apparent safety of their own homes, or through their mobile devices, with parents and teachers often unaware.
o All these sources of abuse need to be uncovered and made widely known so that as a society we understand where and how such abuse goes on hidden and secret. We should demand not only justice for victims, but also recognition for their experience and we need to apologise and ask their forgiveness.


Resilience and survival:


On the positive side, we do know that many children (in fact the majority) survive childhood maltreatment and go on to develop resilience.


– This can be due to positive features in other parts of their lives, for example having at least one caring parent or substitute parents, having good support from friends and their families, having positive school experience.
– Resilience can grow through healing experience in adult life. The efforts of caring partners, loving children, and fulfilling work experience can increase both trust and self-esteem.
– Individuals often improve their resilience through their own efforts, through self-help, personal growth or therapeutic input. All of these can have substantial and lasting positive impact.


So I hope I have provided some more food for thought….


As academics we at universities have to learn about translating information so that it makes sense to different audiences whether academic, practitioner or public.


– We need to make the messages plain to increase understanding, to engender compassion and tolerance. But we cannot oversimplify – human behaviour and experience is complicated and sensationalising does not help those abused or those seeking to understand abuse.
– Sometimes it is the painstaking and detailed work accomplished through research that progress is made. So with the aid of hundreds of life stories provided by the unselfish narrating of victim-survivors we can learn to understand what child abuse means. Over time this informs policy and practice in changing and improving our society to make it safe for children.


Article Author: Antonia Bifulco

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