How To Help A Friend Cope With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Caused By Childhood Abuse

Effects of child abuse as adults may manifest suddenly.

Adult survivors of  abuse are often ambushed by unexpected fear, sorrow and anxiety.
Adult survivors of abuse are often ambushed by unexpected fear, sorrow and anxiety. | Source

Childhood Abuse Has Lifelong Consequences

If you look up “listening to a friend with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “ online, you will find a large page of entries that give all kinds of tips on how to support and listen to survivors of trauma. In this article I want to discuss specifically how to listen to survivors of childhood abuse. A lot of this information can be generalized to survivors of all types of trauma, but I want to make the information provided here very specific to my own situation.

My father was an abusive alcoholic. Like most abusive parents, he kept his abuse secret. To the outside world he was charming and funny and clever and smart, and he was often those things to me when he was sober. When he was drunk and sometimes when he wasn't, he was hateful, mean-spirited and violent. He was emotionally and physically abusive. He kept me isolated from others, and he controlled me and my mother with criticism, insults, unreasonable demands and physical abuse. Yet others always told us how witty, charming, funny and smart he was.

My father thought that he was a good parent. He believed that he was a better parent than his mother before him had been because he never hit us with objects. He was proud of the fact that he only hit us with an open hand and not his fists or a fly swatter or a shoe. He told tales of his own childhood and of being chased to church with a fly swatter in the days when fly swatters were made of metal. He told of how his mother had suddenly decided that he should be circumcised when he was 13 and called in the town doctor, a well-known drunk, who attempted to tie him to the kitchen table to perform the surgery. My father told me these stories of his bad childhood in order to convince me that he was a good parent. I believed him because he was my father.

Withholding Opportunities Is Abusive

My father held me back from entering school until I was almost seven. Kindergarten was optional in those days. When I finished first grade, the school quickly recommended I move forward to third grade, but my father refused. When I finished fifth grade, the school recommended I move forward to seventh grade, but my father refused.

When I entered junior high, I was enrolled in all academic classes. I was taking band and drama, making friends and becoming involved in social activities. Suddenly, my father decided to move our entire family to a small town and a house situated two blocks away from the local school. There was no band, no drama and no academic classes. I had no friends, so my father was never bothered by people entering our home, and I never needed to be driven anywhere for any social events. In this environment, I was the school nerd. I was filled with so much anxiety that I could barely breathe all day every day throughout the rest of my school years, and I wondered if other people felt the way I felt. Now I know that they did not.

When I was about to graduate from high school, one of my aunts said to my father "I guess you'll be going around looking at colleges now." My father told her I would live at home, go to North Texas State University, major in journalism and minor in English (because that's what he had done), work full time and pay for it myself because that was "good enough" for me. I left home very soon after I graduated from high school.

Implicit Support Of the Abuser Hurts Years After The Fact

When I was a very small child, my mother would often take me to visit relatives to escape my father’s drunkenness on the weekends. A few years ago, I learned that during one of these weekends, my father showed up drunk, with a gun and threatened to kill everyone if my mother did not bring me home. So she did, and nobody did anything, yet when I was growing up my relatives frequently said, “You know your mother and father really do love you.” I thought this was normal. I thought that everyone's family reassured them constantly that their parents actually loved them. I was an adult before I realized that this is not the case. Parents who actually love their children don’t do things to derail their children's education and make their lives miserable. I was an adult before I realized that parents who love their children protect them, as opposed to slapping, screaming at, criticizing and insulting them or allowing this to happen.

Why Can’t Abuse Survivors Just Get Over It?

Now I am in my 50s, and you may very well think that I should be “over” it. The fact is, adult survivors of childhood abuse are never “over “ it. At least once a week, sometimes more often, I suddenly become aware of a way in which my childhood negatively affects my everyday life. I suddenly realize that something I have believed all my life is a lie, or I am exposed to a trigger that throws me far back on the path of self growth and personal development I have tried very hard to follow over the past 20 years.

I found this phenomenon to be very poignantly illustrated by actor Jim Parsons who plays the character, Sheldon, on the popular television show, The Big Bang Theory. In a 2009 episode called The Guitarist Amplification, we learn that Sheldon is incredibly upset when others argue around him. At the beginning of the program, Penny and Leonard, two other main characters get into an argument while the three are playing a board game. Sheldon tries desperately to lighten the situation by attempting to get Leonard and Penny refocused on the game. He calls their attention to the fun of the game with a bright, cheery, brittle voice. When this fails and they continue arguing he runs to the kitchen and begins to throw ice into the blender to drown out the sound of the argument. When Penny slams out of the apartment and Leonard goes to the kitchen to tell Sheldon that the argument is over, Sheldon angrily squeezes an orange over some crushed ice and offers Leonard a victory snow cone for “winning” the board game. All this is done with a false smile on his face.

The scene is funny and brilliantly played by Parsons. The complexity and nuance of his performance very accurately mirrors the jumble of emotions that occur when a triggering event brings back the experiences of an abused child. The survivor’s inner child tries desperately to lighten the situation and to make the argument stop, failing that the child escapes and attempts to block out the situation. When the situation is over, the child pretends it didn’t happen and feels a mixture of joy that the stressful situation has ended and anger that it occurred at all. A survivor of childhood abuse has a very strong need for self protection and may do and say things that seem out of character, illogical and inconsistent when confronted with triggering events. Very often, this is not something the survivor can control.

What Are Triggering Events?

Triggering events are events, pictures, sounds, smells and many other things that may mentally and emotionally throw a survivor of childhood abuse right back into the time of that abuse. Of course, these differ from one survivor to another. I am like Sheldon in that arguing, yelling, swearing and violence are strong triggers for me that may affect me for several days.

Recently, I had a situation in which a relative spent quite a bit of time in my home helping with a home improvement project. This relative has a tendency to swear and yell nonstop the entire time he is working on a project. This is incredibly distressing to me, and it triggers a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear. Although I am deeply grateful to my relative for helping me, I'm always very distressed during and after each project. I always vow that I will never ask him to help me again, and then my mind practices the coping skill of completely forgetting (blocking out) the event until next time, so it happens over and over again. This last time, I felt very strongly that it was an abusive behavior, and it was very distressing to me.

How Does Childhood Abuse Affect An Adult’s Everyday Life?

Surviving abuse affects different people in different ways. For me, interpersonal relationships are extremely difficult. During this recent home improvement project, I was very upset and anxious. Simultaneously, I was in the process of attempting to get to know and befriend a man. I had told him some things about my childhood, and as people often do, he had attempted to make some sense of the situation and to give me reasons why the childhood abuse had occurred. He attempted to redirect my thinking so that I would not judge my father for his actions. During the time of the upsetting home improvement project, I turned to my new friend for support, and he did come over to provide a buffer (because the yelling and swearing behavior doesn't occur when others are present) during part of the project; however, he also put quite a bit of energy into providing “good reasons” why my relative might be behaving as he was. And now that friendship has apparently dissolved.

I realize that giving reasons and explanations is a natural tendency for many people. In fact, this person actually told me that he had a natural tendency to try to defend people who are not present to defend themselves. And while I understand that this is a natural reaction, it's important to me that people who wish to be my friends “have my back“. It's important to me that when I summon the courage to tell my story and seek support, the person I'm speaking with realize that if my father were present, he might be so charming and funny that it would be hard to imagine him being abusive. Alternately, if he were present and no one else was, he would hit me and yell at me. There are not good reasons for this, and attempting to convince a survivor of childhood abuse that there are good reasons for past (or present) abuse is not helpful to the current situation.

How To Listen To Survivors Of Childhood Abuse

At first, you probably won’t know your friend is a survivor of childhood abuse. When a survivor of childhood abuse summons the courage to tell his or her story, it is important that you believe, reassure and encourage rather than placing the survivor in a defensive position by trying to give reasons and/or make excuses for the abuser. This falls in the same category as blaming the victim and should be avoided at all costs. When you are listening to a survivor of childhood abuse, it's important to remember this.

In his excellent book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner explains that when a person experiences a traumatic event and asks “Why me?”, the person is not seeking a list of reasons. What is really called for in this situation is reflective listening. It’s understandable that you may not want to join the survivor of childhood abuse in denouncing the abuser; however, remember that you are friends with the survivor, not the abuser. Offer support and encouragement with phrases like “That must have been very frightening. I’m sorry that happened to you.” This can be followed and amplified by reflecting the survivor’s statement by saying something like “It sounds as if you felt…” or “I hear you saying…” and then rephrase what the survivor has said. This demonstrates empathy and understanding.

What to do when bad things happen to good people...

A Supportive Friend is a Bridge Over Troubled Water!

What Can Friends Of Survivors Of Childhood Abuse Do?

Understand that many survivors of childhood abuse, myself included, have gone through a lot a personal growth and development and may have arrived at the point of being secure and content in many ways; however, some events trigger regression. This may test your friendship. If you are a true friend of the survivor, you will not abandon your friend in a time of anxiety.

In another example from Rabbi Kushner’s excellent, classic book, the rabbi tells the tale of a little boy who is late arriving home. His mother asks why he was late, and the little boy says that his friend’s bicycle broke, and he stopped to help. The mother says “But you don‘t know how to fix a bicycle.” to which the boy responds, “I didn’t help him fix his bicycle. I helped him cry.” This is what is needed by survivors of childhood abuse at various times throughout our lives, especially after experiencing a triggering event.

If you are friends with an adult survivor of childhood abuse, it is important that you understand that triggering events often call forth memories and sudden flashes of insight. This will always be the case. The processing is ongoing, and it is not possible to just “get over” it. To be a true friend to a survivor of childhood abuse, it is important to believe the survivor and to be a present, consistent, supportive and a nonjudgmental, reflective listener.

Copyright:SuzanneBennett:March 25, 2013

This homily from Msgr. Don Fischer resonates deeply with me...

"Let's just say a person living an ordinary life together with other people & a family, when there's that constant pressure to not make mistakes, when mistakes are met with anger & resentment & shaming & all that. What happens if that wasn't there? ...Something shifts in people when they're not under that kind of pressure...maybe it's nothing more than the release of ...all that shame & anger & fear of making mistakes -- maybe that's the key then that we become more open to the most amazing conversation that goes on between your heart & God's heart that somehow begins to guide you & you start being able to be the kind of agent in this world, this kind of vessel, your self transformed ...therefore able to transform others. " ~ Monsignor Don Fischer, Pastoral Reflections Institute

Jesus’ life shows that spiritual success can differ from the world’s success....

Listen: http://bit.ly/MsgrDonMP3

Read: http://bit.ly/MsgrDonPDF

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Comments 40 comments

Jazz56 3 years ago

Suzanne - Your writing style is very evocative and the topic of childhood abuse is one that far too many people can strongly identify with. Your article offers some thoughtful tips on supporting friends and loved ones as they try to relate and work through their difficult experiences. There is a lot that friends and loved ones can do to support abuse victims, but so often say nothing from a fear of saying the wrong thing. Guidance on what approaches might help can be very helpful indeed.


denise.w.anderson profile image

denise.w.anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

I have a friend whose post-traumatic stress of her childhood abuse is triggered during the expressions of love she sees in others toward their parents. She goes into a trans, almost as if she separates herself from the situation at hand, and leaves temporarily. She becomes distressed when others talk of their positive family experiences. What can I do when I am with her and this happens?


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Jazz and Denise, Thank you for your comments. I appreciate it, and I'm glad you found my article helpful.

Denise, I would say that you can simply remain supportive and reassuring, but it sounds like your friend may benefit from some professional counseling and group work to restructure her responses to these kinds of situations. That response sounds too complex for a friend to be able to change or alter.


avorodisa profile image

avorodisa 3 years ago from Russia

This topic is really difficult but necessary. And I appreciate your courage and honesty to share your experience here. I'm sorry about what happened to you. People used to cause violence to other people and still do. And they would pass over their trauma to other people. I believe your father was in a very bad condition because of his childhood. But as most of the people who survived psychological and even physical abuse he was not aware of that. I guess being social is very important to understand what normal state of human beings is and what is not. So, the rare periods when you had lots of activities in your school days must have been helpful to understand that. I nevertheless believe that your father is worth being forgiven for what he has done. At least by you. I wish you shrewdness to recognize triggers that make you hurt. And I wish you courage to keep on living life which is beautiful and worth living despite anything.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Avorisda, thank you for your comment. I want to point out that it is an example of what I am talking about. You don't know my father, so why defend him? Forgiving is a process. Part of it is anger. When the survivor of abuse is always met with, "Well, he probably did that because of his childhood..." "He probably didn't understand what he was doing..." it forces the survivor to skip part of the process and puts the survivor into a defensive mode. When this happens the process can never be completed. The survivor knows why the situation happened. Of course abusers have psychological problems that cause them to act out. When a survivor confides, it is not in search of explanations. Adult survivors of childhood abuse have lacked protection and have had to struggle against not being believed all their lives. Saying "I'm sorry that happened to you." and then following it up by explaining why you think it happened (even though you were not there, do not know my father and never will) and then correcting me by saying my father is "worth forgiveness" and it's too bad I'm not shrewd enough to recognize triggers is not actually helpful! LOL! :D


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Additionally, I am indeed shrewd enough to recognize triggers. After all, that's what this article is about. It is not about inability to forgive. It is about the impossibility of forgetting. These are two very different things. I understand the why's of the situation and forgive the actions, but triggers come in all sorts of unexpected forms at unexpected times and evoke memories and responses that may have been buried for decades. Sometimes (as when realizing that a firmly held belief is based in a lie) this means a major paradigm shift in thoughts, decision making, etc. When this is the case, support from friends is what is needed, not advice to forgive and forget.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

BTW, Avorisda I do realize that you made your comment with very good intentions, and I appreciate it. Everyone who responds in this way means it with good intentions without realizing that it doesn't actually address the need being presented. :)


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 3 years ago

Suzanne, I am sorry to hear of your having to experience such abuse as a child. It was so moving, and I am so impressed that you moved forward with a positive outlook. I was touched the your sharing the little boy's bike story. As you stated, our listening and empathy will help those who suffer. God bless you.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Many thanks, teaches! I appreciate it. :)


Carlota2243 profile image

Carlota2243 3 years ago from Santa Rosa, California

Sister,

Thank you for writing this. Childhood abuse is such a hard subject to broach, even though it impacts so many aspects of our lives, and who we become as adults. Because of our age difference, we experienced the same father in such different situations. I didn't see the alcoholism, but did experience the pervasive pessimism, insults, sexual innuendo and pornography, inappropriate touching, and the systematic process he used to totally break down any sense of self esteem or hope of a successful future we might have had for ourselves.

I realized just recently that the catch phrases he used: "Don't get your hopes up," "What do you plan to use for money," and "Girls like you can't be too choosy'" whenever I expressed an interest in college or a profession or a boy were tools he was using to undermine my confidence and set up a scenario in which I would not be able to envision any future for myself except that of staying home after high school and being his caretaker.

We got away physically, but not emotionally. I am angry that a playful pat on the behind from my husband does not elicit a playful response, but instead sucks me back to all the times I was groped by our father, and causes me to recoil and draw away.

I am angry that Daddy affects us still, almost 25 years after his death. He treated us badly because of things that were wrong with him, not because of things that were wrong with us. Realizing this as an adult is helpful, but we had no inkling of this as children, and hindsight doesn't take away the pain we experienced at the hands of the person who was supposed to be our caretaker and protector. It just filters it, attenuates it, so that we can hope to move forward as adults.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Hello Sister!

Thank you for your very thoughtful, insightful and supportive comment.

Good realization on the catch phrases! With me, if I expressed an interest in wanting to do anything other than become a world famous photojournalist (which did not interest me at all) he just said, "No you don't." As a result, it has taken me decades to be able to recognize what I actually want to do in any given situation.

We have moved forward as adults, but it's an ongoing struggle. Support from friends and sisters certainly helps! :)

I'm glad you joined Hub Pages! I look forward to reading your HUBS!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi Suzanne,

This post should be very helpful to those who underwent abuse of any type but also to the friends and family members of those who were abused. Thank you for writing this. Up and useful votes and will share.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks Peggy! :)


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks for the suggestion.


Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

Suzanne, you have so much courage, to tell your story. I still can't, when I start it hurts my heart. I can't seem to share what it was like, and I understand the reason and that my grandfather was a mean and cruel man. But I also know that it is not an excuse to pass it on.

Thank you for telling your story. I will share it any way I can.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Shyron! I decided to write this after a friend on FaceBook published an e book that was very personal. It was not about abuse. It was about attempting to date in the senior years, but the fact that she was able to share her experience so openly at exactly the time I was experiencing trigger issues with my relative inspired me to share mine.

My friend's name is Suza Francina, and her book is:

Fishing On FaceBook

http://bit.ly/FishingFB

She is a skilled and talented yogini and also has several books on yoga available. :)


Indian Chef profile image

Indian Chef 3 years ago from New Delhi India

I did not understand why your father would not let you be in right class according to your age and made you loose couple of years in school. Voting up and awesome.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thank you IC, neither did I :(


Ruby H Rose profile image

Ruby H Rose 3 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

We are not alone anymore, my friend. Some of us have been in recovery for a long time, hoping to get well enough to give back the love, joy, peace, happiness and laughter they were given in recovery rooms.

I stepped off the ledge and took another step back into the "voices". Bipolar, depression, mental illness that was screamed at me, then denied, I was wrong, I didn't hear it, they didn't mean what they said, they didn't know what they were doing. Mental switchblades, back and forth, parent child...Enough for now. The challenge was hard, but I did it, we both did, we pushed through to another layer, I was held up in support this time, I was believed, loved, and told enough of the true story to heal another layer.

You get the idea, been there, done that, it has been hard for me to show it. Thank you now I can, onto the next level of recovery, I think I am gonna hip hop the words for the rest of the story.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thank you! :)


litsabd profile image

litsabd 3 years ago

Perhaps the most useful hub I have ever read in the last year or so I have been around! It is true that childhood abuse, especially emotional abuse, can follow individuals up to their adulthood, causing problems of various kinds. It is so nice to read there is a way to get over it....Thank you very much justmesuzanne....


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Well, there isn't really a way to get over it, but friends can be much more helpful by simply listening and empathizing than by attempting to explain the "reasons" for the situation. Thanks for commenting! :)


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

First of all thanks for sharing your story, the bit about feeling breathless at school made me nod my head in agreement. I know what it feels like, its a trapped feeling, you want to do this, they want you to do that and put you there. therefore the panic starts, I know it well. I love the big bang theory and remember the episode well, Jim is a very clever and funny guy, but in this episode I did see what was going on. as you mentioned, there is one thing I hate too, thats the person who always tries to make an excuse for the abuser! makes me so mad, great hub, and voted up, nell


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks for the support and affirmation, Nell! :)


duffsmom profile image

duffsmom 3 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

This hub is very informative. As an only child, the survivor of two alcoholic parents and their early deaths - I was able to really feel what you wrote. I often wonder what would be different in my life if all this chaos had not been my start in life. Well done justmesuzanne.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thank you, duffsmom. It is so easy for people who have not been there to say, "Just put it behind you. Don't let it affect you." Those of us who have been there know it's just not that easy!


bydojo profile image

bydojo 3 years ago from Romania

You never get over abuse, no matter what your current age is. What happens to us in childhood stays with us forever. We might learn how to better cope with this, we might learn how to hide some of our past, but everything stays with us.

I am so sad to read this article and still grateful to you for taking the plunge and writing about these horrors. Your article will help other people who have gone through a similar experience and those who have friends that have been abused as children.


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I have a good friend who is a victim of childhood abuse. I was comforted to read that I follow most of your advice. Listening without much in the way of commenting is often what she needs. I hope your healing continues. It is an ongoing process of small steps of recovery with many relapses along the way. I hope you have some very supportive persons in your life to help in your journey.


Mekenzie profile image

Mekenzie 3 years ago from Michigan

Suzanne, This is excellent advice for those of us who experienced abuse in childhood.

I think your friend, who tried to explain the abusers behavior exposed himself as someone who is NOT safe.

I know it is a tendency for some to try to explain things away - but NEVER should abusive behavior be reasoned out or justified.

When a person tries to explain bad behavior away it is a revelation that the he/she has NO insight into the powerful pain the abuser inflicted on us.

A good listener who believes in us is what we need when we chose to open our hearts. We are in a very vulnerable state as we share and bless-ed is the one who holds our hearts with tender care and ... as you say ... has our back.

I'm glad you have found healing through the years and that you are helping to reach others with your story. May you continue on the pathway to wholeness and may God bring people around you who are whole, healthy and helpful.

Hugs!

Mekenzie


brakel2 profile image

brakel2 3 years ago from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

I read this hub last night and have a disappeared comment. Anyway, what an emotionally compelling story and written so professionally. You have provided a great service in telling others what they can do to help a person in this situation. I see by your profile that you are in a professional field, so hope some of the trauma has lessened. I believe you are in a field helping others. Anyway, we never really know what has gone on in the past of the lives of our friends. You were brave and still are brave. My heart aches four your sorrow, and may this article help others. Hugs. Audrey


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Wow! Many thanks for all the lovely comments! I appreciate your reading and thoughtful support!

@brakela2: I don't know why you have a disappeared comment. The only one I see the one that is here now! :/


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi again Suzanne,

I am going to pin this to my Health related subjects board on Pinterest. Hopefully this article will continue to help others on their path to recovery after suffering any type of childhood abuse.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Many thanks! :)


SandCastles 3 years ago

The , "You know your mother and father really do love you", is a line people say when they don't believe it themselves. They are trying to convince themselves that your parents love you so they don't have to intervene, confront your parents, or do anything. It eases their guilt. They don't say that line to make you feel better; they say the line to make themselves feel better.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Well, I think that is true in some instances and not in others. Some of the relatives who said that to me were no more capable of taking on my father than a bunny rabbit is capable of taking on a grizzly bear. People who are in a position to take action should definitely do so, though! Thanks for commenting! :)


fivesenses profile image

fivesenses 3 years ago from new delhi

I hope talking about it helps you in some way... and yes childhood abuse happens to alot of people, in alot of ways, in different countries all over the world we live in.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks! :)


DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Childhood abuse is not a good experience for any individual talking about such problems can be helpful to your mind and self.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 2 years ago from Texas Author

Many thanks, DDE! :)


Bruce Haataja profile image

Bruce Haataja 2 years ago from Menahga, MN

I would have to say that one of the best ways to help a friend with PTSD is to learn about it and just listen. For someone who don't have PTSD it is so hard to understand and from my experiences it makes people with it frustrated when others who don't have it act like they understand. Thanks for writing about it!

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