Peer Support for Abuse Survivors
Dissociation & Stages of Development
source: Sara Lambert
All human begins go through different stages of physical and psychological development over the course of their lives. According to developmental psychologists like Erik Erikson, each stage addresses a particular conflict. How you resolve these conflicts determines your success in dealing with future stages of your development and fulfilling your potential as a human being. However few people achieve perfect resolution to these conflicts, even if they had a wonderful and safe childhood, and almost everyone is left with unsettled issues that dog them through life, causing minor hitches along the way. This is normal. It would be virtually impossible to find the kind of ideal environment that would allow a person to make a perfect transition through every stage of their life. Multiples and dissociative abuse survivors grew up in environments that were about as far from perfect as can be imagined. Because of this, the tasks of human development were often too difficult for us to achieve. In many cases, our progression was deliberately retarded and distorted by our abusers. Each time we were unable to resolve the tasks of one developmental stage, those of the next became more insurmountable and we were left disabled in many ways.
It is possible, however, to take the tasks in hand, later in life, and work with them to
successful resolution so the developmental issues of the rest of your life are easier to face
Pre-natal: The physical and emotional abuse of children can begin even before they are born. The task of this pre-natal stage (not covered by Erikson) is physical development. A mother’s drug, nicotine, and alcohol intake directly impacts on the baby she is carrying. If she continues to use these substances during her pregnancy, her baby is at risk of being born with physical and mental handicaps, deformities, and addictions. The baby also suffers damage if her mother is being physically abuse, either through domestic violence or continuing parental/ ritual abuse. At the extreme, babies can be murdered as a consequence of violence done to their mothers. A number of unborn babies are killed every year when their mothers are beaten by violent husbands. Ritual cults impregnate victims with the intention of terminating the pregnancies and murdering the babies either pre or post natal. Less spectacular, but still damaging, is the way in which a mother’s mental state, for example chemical imbalances caused by stress, anxiety, and depression can also harm her unborn baby.
Birth to Eighteen Months Old: For many people, having a child is a blessed event. The child is cherished, valued and given lots of love and attention. A considerable percentage of survivors, however, can trace their abuse back to these early days. They were unwanted, and uncared for. Their basic needs were neglected. For example, they were seldom picked up, fed only intermittently and with poor quality food, left unprotected from the cold or heat, and rarely had their nappies changed. Many learned very early the world was dangerous territory. They had no “safe place” in their mother because she abused them or did not protect them from the abuse of others. Their environment was full of perils – for example, loud and/or violent adults, games that abruptly became abusive, household pitfalls (eg. stairs, light sockets) that were not safeguarded, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and ritualistic torture. Even if someone did nourish them, they naturally expected this to be dangerous too, simply because danger was the likeliest bet. The main developmental issue children face in their first eighteen months is trust. They will gain trust if they are raised in an environment where they can explore safely, express their emotional and physical needs without punishment and knowing those needs will be met, and count on the consistency of the significant people around them. With trust, they begin to develop hope. To illustrate: a child who trusts his parents, and who knows the world is a safe place, will have the freedom and security to feel hungry and wish for food, because he knows there’s a pretty good chance he’ll get it. On the other hand, the hungry child who is frightened of his parents and has experienced the world as being painful and threatening will not wish for food, because he knows either he won’t get it or he will be punished for asking. He already knows there is no chance in hoping for anything. Many children at this age, faced with these problems, will start using dissociation as a defense against their feelings and needs.
Eighteen Months to Three Years Old: At this age children discover their bodies and how to control them. For most children, this is the first opportunity to become truly powerful, as they are able to physically manipulate the world around them and do things for themselves. They gain self-control and self-confidence through skills like toilet training and learning to feed and dress themselves. They start to develop autonomy. But many abused children are already finding out that their body is an appalling place to be. It does not belong to them, but to their abuser(s), who do whatever they want to it, whenever they want. As a result, abused children have an early lesson in futility and powerlessness. No matter what mastery they gain over their bodies, they have it stolen from them repeatedly. In response, many abused children physically regress, abdicating whatever body control they have gained as an expression of their feelings of helplessness – for example, wetting the bed, reverting to “baby talk.” They lose their will to be independent and self determining. This stage also sees a child’s brain having reached the level of sophistication where it allows them to start thinking for themselves and establish a sense of personal identity. They take delight in defining their separateness from other people – for example, they say “No!” a lot. They test boundaries and rules. For the abused child, this natural testing may be severely curtailed by their parents. They are told to shut up, sit still, be good, be silent. Some are even physically restrained – tied up, locked in a closet. The message is that it is not okay for them to have independence of action or identity. Many children this age, including those not otherwise abused, are punished or mocked if they make a mistake. For example, a child who spills her food is called messy, stupid, bad. Some children will act out in response to this emotional abuse, becoming enraged or out of control. Others will withdraw from the battle, presenting a very obedient and polite visage to the world in an effort to stay safe. Abused children may also be told their feelings are wrong, or have their feelings deliberately manipulated by abusers who tell them things like, “your really like it when I touch you here,” which may lead the child to think that feeling sick or hurt is equal to pleasure. These children determine that they are fundamentally wrong somehow, although they are given few specific reasons why. Burdened with such self-doubt and shame, the children lose their ultimate ally – themselves.
Three to Seven Years Old: This is the age for learning about the world and putting names to things. Children explore their environment, learning how to deal with things and developing initiative skills. They test reality and discover its limitations, then often find a way through those limitations via their imagination – for example, a child realizes he can’t fly, so fantasizes he is a bird and runs around the garden flapping his wings, “flying” inside. They are also finding out that they have a direct impact on their environment and the people in it. If they are criticized and punished for the impact that they make, they begin to feel guilty. Many children eventually take this sense of guilt to a profound extreme and assume they are responsible for every bad thing that happens in their world whether they actually caused it or not. They feel guilty even if they are praised. They become frightened of, or obsessed with the consequences of their impact on the environment/people around them. A child at this age is incredibly vulnerable to the input of adults – they will believe anything they are told. Many abused children, especially those who were raised in ritual groups, are deliberately taught a confused, false reality. This includes experiences such as seeing someone “killed” in a ritual and then meeting them, alive and well, on the street the next day. They may also be placed in double-bind situations – tricks which they don’t yet have the mental sophistication to comprehend, like being assured if they do something they won’t be hurt, and then, upon doing it, being hurt anyway. These children learn that they can’t trust their own perceptions. Sexual exploration also begins at this age. Abusers turn children’s natural curiosity about their sexuality and sexual feelings into something debauched, and once again the children are made to feel guilty for their normal feelings and behaviors. Children who reach out into the world and have their hand slapped, bitten, or forced to touch something they do not like, eventually forget any sense of purpose or plan, becoming instead reactive, waiting to see what is done to them before they make their next move.
Seven to Twelve Years Old: Now, children develop social skills and start to become good at certain things. They define their areas of special interest. They take on what they do as part of who they are, and often it is activities enjoyed at this time of life that influence the child’s entire future orientation – for example, I discovered the joys of reading and writing at this age and have been known ever since as “the writer”, whereas my brother found he was really good at making friends with other kids, and he has gone on to a successful career in sales. Both of us were praised for our talents in these areas, so we generally felt assured of them. If a child’s talents, or even their experiments at becoming skilled at something, are put down, they will develop a feeling of being inferior which will spill over into all aspects of their life and self-opinion. Many abused children are not given any choice about what they will do and be. It is made clear to them by authority figures (eg, parents) how their day will be spent, how they will think, feel and act. They have no power; consequently, they see themselves and incompetent, their own wishes for themselves unimportant. They live their lives for other people. Comparison with one’s peers also becomes more important during these years, and the child ‘s identity is tested, redefined, and consolidated by their social life. If they are shy around other children, teased or bullied, or hesitant to be around others because they feel dirty, bad, or different, then their self-opinion is going to be badly damaged and they will have a hard time gaining a sense of entitlement to be alive, let alone confidence.
Twelve to Eighteen Years Old: The child, now a young adult, has reached the point where s/he needs to sort out exactly what shape her self will take. She gathers together all her talents, preferences, faults, dislikes, voices and perceptions, and puts them together, integrated under the heading “Me”. Then she finds where “Me” fits in the world. She investigates and experiments with different roles, value systems, and attitudes to find a place of belonging. Thus teenagers go around asking “Who am I?” all the time and coloring their hair purple. Of course, most dissociative survivors ask that question at a more fundamental level. When they reach within, they can not touch upon anything that feels like an “ego” or “I”. If they are unable to locate all the pieces of them to make into one identity, If they can find nowhere to belong because they have not been able to develop trust in self and others and a sense of being basically okay, then their ego remains fragmented, unanchored, and separate even from their self. Without a sense of I-ness, a person can not experience fidelity towards herself or others, nor connect in a real and deep way with the world. She remains alone in an ultimate way.
Eighteen to Thirty Years Old: The main task of this stage is to develop the ability to share yourself with another person without losing your own identity. This does not just relate to sexual intimacy, but includes things like making friends, fitting in with your work colleagues, and just being with people on the whole. Many abuse survivors have trouble with this, and feel estranged – spiritually, emotionally or physically – from others. Without having resolved the issues of the earlier developmental stages, they simply do not have the tools to master this stage. Furthermore, many dissociators find it impossible to share with others a self they themselves do not know.
Thirty to Sixty Years Old: The conflict here is between taking care of your own needs and helping others and/or putting something back into society. Finding equal time, energy, and commitment for self and others is often tricky. It is especially difficult for abuse survivors, who may have trouble with the concept of caring. They may not care for anyone, including themselves, after years of being hardened by harm. Or they may care too much, and as a result, be left raw by emotion. They may look after others at the expense of their own needs. Thus they never get what they want or need from the world.
Sixty Plus Years Old: Towards the end of life, people naturally look back over the years and evaluate what has been. There is a sense of integrity gained from having lived a fulfilling life. Wisdom comes from understanding and appreciating the choices one has made, for better or worse, through happiness or distress. But if a person’s life has been unhappy, ill-spent, and drained by wasted opportunities, then despair and bitterness ensue. One’s ability to find a resolution of this conflict is dependant on, and reflective of, their success in resolving all the developmental conflicts that have gone before.
Originally published in Team Spirit
Reprinted With Permission
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