When a human being experiences a terrible event like child sexual abuse, the memories of that event become charged with very strong emotions, feelings of horror and disgust. This is a biological process and has an obvious adaptive advantage: it makes us want to avoid that same situation again, which helps us to survive.
But, where we are not able to avoid the threatening situation – such as when a boy is being hurt by the very family which keeps him fed and alive – then these memories and feelings can become unbearable.
When a child is not able to avoid the abusive situation physically, he must learn to avoid the memories and feelings about the abuse psychologically. Thinking about the abuse triggers the feelings that are attached to the memories, so the child learns ways to not remember or think about the abuse. There are multiple strategies children develop to do this.
All the strategies we are going to talk about work the same way. The purpose of the strategies is to avoid the feelings which are linked to the memories of the abuse.
Very often strategies are developed in childhood, using a child’s mind. A child can’t be expected to think though all the consequences of the strategy, and sometimes is in too much pain or danger to be able to afford to. The strategy may then take on a ‘life of its own’, and ultimately become a problem in itself.
Nevertheless it is worth making that point that just because a strategy may cause difficulties, that doesn’t mean it didn’t make sense in the first place. If it hadn’t worked to manage the feelings caused by the abuse, the survivor would not have kept using it. All strategies make sense when they are first developed.
We should also add that just because some activity or way of thinking is being used as a strategy, that doesn’t mean it is an inherently unhealthy or problematic activity/thought. Anything can be used as a strategy. It only becomes a problem when it becomes dysfunctional or painful in some way, or gets in the way of other positive things in a person’s life.
Here are some of the most common strategies we see at SAMSSA. Click on the link for more information: