By Kim Barthel, Occupational Therapist
Many people who have been sexually abused define themselves through the lens of that abuse. They believe that their sometimes addictive and chaotic behaviour is caused solely by their childhood sexual abuse experience. Unfortunately for someone looking for a simple cause and effect explanation of why they do what they do today- it’s not that simple.
We have come to understand that our early childhood relationships with our core parent or caregiver (attachments) shape our brain patterns and our behaviours. There are three different kinds of “attachment” strategies, which have a significant effect upon how resilient we can be in the face of future trauma, including childhood sexual abuse. These three ways that kids learn to cope with their parents exist as strategies to feel comfortable and secure. Attachment theory is the study of these strategies and how they come to be. These concepts are being introduced here in hope that you will gain further self-understanding about your own patterns of behaviour.
For a newborn baby, survival is the name of the game. Aside from needing to eat and sleep, what they most require is to feel safe on all levels, especially emotionally. Typically a loving, attentive primary caregiver provides a baby with that sense of security and safety. Predictable care that sensitively meets a child’s needs allows them to feel loved and valued, molding healthy relationship styles for the years to come. The baby develops a sense of their own importance to others from these interactions; it gives them the foundation necessary to explore the world, learn and grow. This grounded sense of security is the basis of resilience to stress, like a protective factor preparing the child to weather the future storms of life.
When the caregiver’s natural response is to be “tuned into” their child, which means they pay attention in the moment to how the child is feeling as a direct result of their behaviour, then the child feels understood and connected to their parent. This happens when the parent empathizes and places their mind “inside the mind of the child”. Taking this perspective helps the parent to feel what their child is feeling and experiencing. This requires that the parent be “present” and available to the child with their whole being at least some of the time. This experience of attunement is at the heart of secure attachment. When a child experiences secure attachment at an early age, they are better able to balance their feelings and thoughts for clear communication and effective relationships throughout their lives. When the opposite is true for you, however, the odds are less in your favour. The infant who is not securely attached will naturally seek to protect themselves from danger in other, not always healthy, ways.