Breaking Free – August 2023

Understanding the impact of abuse, neglect and exploitation in the home and family


While there has been a much-needed focus on violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in institutions, in aged care, of people with disabilities and First Nations peoples, we must also focus on trauma in the home and family. The recently released Australian Child Maltreatment Study although not identifying the place in which maltreatment occurred showed that of Australians aged 16-65, 32% experienced physical abuse, 28.5% sexual abuse, 30.9% emotional abuse, 8.9% neglect and 39.6% domestic and family violence.

The damaging effects of family violence, and children ‘witnessing’ such violence and the fear and helplessness it invokes have been the subject of many inquiries and community responses. Needless to say, there is still a lot to do to achieve the attitudinal and behavioural change needed to make a real difference.

This article however focuses more on the scourge of childhood abuse including online exploitation in the home and family – sexual, physical or emotional abuse as well as the effects of neglect – what a child does not receive physically and emotionally. The home is often seen as sacrosanct and what happens within it is ‘family business’ alone. Caregivers and parents have ready access to their children, and children depend on them for their very survival. Children are less likely to disclose, more confused and conflicted, overwhelmed by shame and self-blame, fundamentally betrayed, and often unsafe. Secrecy and silence abound, and society and governments have historically often been ‘hands off’.

However the home and family are often not so safe, and abuse, neglect and exploitation occur not uncommonly. The harsh reality is that trauma, in all the above forms, in childhood, can affect the way a child develops – brain, body and mind. If a child experiences a traumatic event/s during a critical developmental period, it can take longer for the child to develop the skills that most other children develop at that age.

The good news is that with support, care and nurture later on, the child, young person and/or adult they become can still build those skills later in life. Every child ideally has at least one reliable caregiver or parent – a person to help the child feel understood and build a healthy bond with them. This helps the child to develop a secure attachment as a model for safe and healthy relationships through life. It is also a time when the brain is growing and changing rapidly, and when trauma can impact a range of developmental activities at different ages. When a child does not experience consistent or reliable caregiving, the child can find it harder to cope with everyday stress as well as trauma. The child might learn how to regulate their emotions or to self-soothe when they experience distress. These are skills that can definitely be learned later on, once the person feels and is safe and supported. Of course, not every child does have a reliable caregiver – someone who is attuned to them and who can help them make sense of their feelings and reactions, and the world around them. It is important to understand that the lack of a reliable caregiver does not mean that a person cannot acquire new skills later on.

While it can take time, and hope can be elusive, repair and healing is always possible. A big step to healing is connecting what happened in childhood to current challenges, and learning self-compassion to negate the strong feelings of self-blame and shame many survivors of family abuse, in particular, experience. Being told repeatedly that you are worthless and having your feelings negated, or being brutalised by the person who is meant to care and nurture you creates fear, distress and a lot of confusion. It is a primary betrayal and growing up finding it hard to trust others and feel safe makes a lot of sense if that was your experience. Part of healing is finding a reality and sense of safety and learning how to trust others. When a child is hungry, caregivers usually feed the child. When a child is upset, caregivers usually comfort the child. When a child is frightened, caregivers usually help the child feel safe.

Sometimes however caregivers may have their own difficulties which prevent them from providing the support that the child needs and wants – often despite the best intentions. Some caregivers might misuse drugs and alcohol, experience violence and abuse or have mental health issues. These difficulties can mean the caregiver cannot always notice and understand what the child needs. Constantly missing or misunderstanding the needs of the child can affect the way the caregiver and child attach or bond. Children with trauma experiences can and often develop into adaptive, resourceful and resilient adults. This is because the brain is neuroplastic and can be repaired right through life. Good support can support the process of repair, with a path to healing, acquiring and strengthening the skills, internal resources, and support networks that were not available when they were children.

As we approach National Child Protection Week from September 3rd -9th and embrace the theme ‘Every child needs a fair go’ Blue Knot will continue to advocate and provide support to many adults who simply did not receive that fair go.

Blue Knot Helpline Client Survey and Demographic Analysis

Helpline Survey

In July/August Blue Knot distributed a survey seeking feedback from clients who’d called the Blue Knot Helpline since 2020. The Blue Knot Helpline and Redress Support Service takes calls from adults with experiences of complex childhood trauma and those with experiences of institutional child sexual abuse inquiring about the National Redress Scheme.

Blue Knot would like to thank everyone who took the time to share their reflections and comments in responding to the survey. The feedback is invaluable as it provides your insights into what we’re doing well, as well as areas for improvement. We’d also like to thank members of our Lived and Living Experience Committee for their generosity in reviewing the survey before it went out and helping us improve the questions we asked as well as how we asked them.

Read the Survey Results Here

What do we know about how to support adults who have been sexually abused as a child and experience complex trauma?

Last year, the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse (the National Centre) commissioned a report from the Gendered Violence Research Network at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Blue Knot Foundation. The report was to review the current literature about what the evidence says is helpful in supporting adults who experienced sexual abuse as children.

The review made some interesting points.

Firstly, trauma is described in so many ways that it remains confusing to understand. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is still a label that is used very often to describe the impact of child sexual abuse. But it has its problems. It cannot escape its own history as a diagnosis developed to account for the impact of a single incident of violence between people, or arising from the experiences of a natural disaster.

The recently released Australian Child Maltreatment Study found that four in five people experienced child sexual abuse on more than one occasion. Critically, it also found that sexual abuse in childhood mostly occurs together with other forms of maltreatment; for example, domestic and family violence and emotional abuse.

For these and other reasons, the preferred way to describe the ongoing effects of child sexual abuse across the lifespan is “complex trauma”. It reflects more accurately how child sexual abuse shapes the ways that victims and survivors feel about themselves, their relationships and the meanings they give to their experiences.

Children who are sexually abused are betrayed at a fundamental level, often by those on whom they should be able to depend and trust. They feel and often are unsafe, unaware of when the next assault will occur – living in danger and driven by their biology to try and survive.

All of this is happening as a child is growing, developing and trying to learn about the world. At the same time, their brain is also growing and developing and brain pathways are being laid down. These pathways are informed by the negative experiences of persistent threat rather than positive ones of nurture, safety and protection.

Children who are abused often blame themselves and the shame and self-blame they experience often continues well into adulthood. This is made worse by a society which often does not want to listen, hear or believe. Little wonder that survivors struggle to speak out and be heard, to reach out and seek help, to disclose and be believed.

Being sexually abused threatens a child’s personal safety and the danger to which they are exposed often continues over time. The threat posed during child sexual abuse activates a child’s survival response and throws them into a state of high arousal and/or, if sustained, shutdown. These reactions occur not only at the time but often continue throughout life. This can cause a person’s nervous system to stay reactive.

The repeated trauma a child experiences during their vulnerable childhood years often impacts many facets of their life and across their life course.

Complex trauma refers to ongoing, repeated and often extreme trauma which usually occurs in relationships. A child who is sexually abused has their boundaries violated and often this happens many times. It occurs within the family or other care-giving relationships, with a young person, online or in other contexts. These experiences can seriously impact on a child’s development and lead to a range of emotional, psychological and behavioural challenges as a child, young person and adult.

Just as all experiences of child sexual abuse are unique, so too are the needs of victims and survivors. This means that the path to healing and recovery is unique, too. It is a path which often reflects the complexity of the trauma experienced and which has many twists and turns over time. Because survivors have experienced a childhood which is unpredictable, care needs to be predictable and accessible, regardless of where a person lives or what their background is.

To meet a person’s unique and complex needs, support also needs to be tailored to each individual in the context of their lives, and informed by them, when and where they are seeking support. Most importantly, whatever services a survivor accesses need to be offered in a safe and compassionate environment.

The report found that while there are many different approaches on offer — and some are promising — there is still so much more that needs to be known about supporting survivors to heal and recover. This includes more investment in research overall but, in particular, research and knowledge that is informed by the unique experiences and insights of people with lived and living experience of child sexual abuse.

Dr. Cathy Kezelman

Originally published by National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse


Free Wills Week 4-10 September

Your ongoing legacy can change the lives of adult survivors of complex trauma

Woman writing in her diary

Blue Knot Foundation has partnered with Safewill. If you are thinking about writing your Will Safewill can support you through the process.

September 4-10 is Free Wills Week, if you are wanting to write your Will you can do so free of charge during this period. As you consider your legacy, the wellbeing of your loved ones would usually come first but should you wish to also leave an enduring gift please consider another meaningful step: leaving a gift to Blue Knot Foundation to support its work in empowering adult survivors of complex trauma to heal.

Blue Knot empowers adult survivors to heal in many different ways, including on its Helplines. Every day our trauma counsellors on our Helplines provide life-affirming support to callers, callers like Dave who spoke about the gift of a phone call:

“I spoke with one of your counsellors yesterday, struggling to even know where to start, but eventually identifying that the extensive neediness I’m experiencing following a recent injury, along with feeling so isolated has just seriously triggered my prior child abuse issues. I had thought that I had resolved much of it years ago and wasn’t so affected by it anymore but it’s all come back the last couple of months big-time. Your counsellor was just phenomenal. His depth of understanding was powerful and I felt so Seen and Understood; I felt like he really got it and although it made me cry initially, it was so deeply soothing and relieving. It’s so rare for someone to truly get the impact; it was just amazingly potent and liberating. I feel like your counselling line has given me a way forward and a sense of hope. I don’t think I’ve felt that understood in a very, very long time. I’m so blessed to have had the gift of this phone call. One hour and the right person on the other end of the phone and I cannot believe the difference it’s made.” Dave*

We understand that each person has their own wishes when writing a Will, and loved ones usually come first. If after securing their future, you are able to make a small gift, it would make an enormous difference to survivors such as Dave – even if it is just 1% of your estate.

Taking advantage of the free Will writing opportunity from September 4th to 10th is the first step in securing your legacy. Thank you for considering leaving a gift of healing to Blue Knot Foundation and adult survivors of complex trauma.

*Name changed for privacy

Write your will with Safewill

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