Child Abuse and Spirituality:
A Pathway for Healing from Trauma
Posted Dec 10, 2018
In my psychotherapy practice, I work with adult women recovering from child abuse. My clients chose to go to therapy because they were struggling with the consequences and symptoms associated with the long-term impact of abuse. They believed that their past had followed them into their current lives and was negatively impacting their ability to function in their families, friendships, and work environments. The women wanted to break negative behaviors, thought patterns, and defenses that at one time had helped them manage the dysfunction and violence they experienced as children but no longer worked for them as adults. Many of my clients endured their child abuse alone, and as adults, they are reaching out for support in order to heal.
Many survivors contend with feelings of low self-esteem, problems with intimacy, anxiety, depression, addictions, and problems managing and expressing feelings in healthy ways. Abuse survivors may also experience psychosocial losses resulting from the traumas. These losses include loss of childhood, loss of innocence, and loss of faith in God.
The women I interviewed and saw in my practice found that religion and a spiritual belief was important in helping them move past their abusive childhood experiences. However, for others, trauma acted to sever their belief and connection to God and spiritual faith. A number of factors such as the age of the abuse, whether the abuser lives in the home, and if the child has caring and supportive adults in their life appear to impact whether a survivor will be able to create or maintain a connection to a higher power or a spiritual belief.
In therapy, Claire shared with me a critical moment in her childhood. She said that she remembers praying and asking God to intervene and stop her stepfather from abusing her. However, the abuse did not stop. She said she prayed constantly. She bargained with God and promised to be a “good girl”. As Claire continued to share her story she said, “I vowed to God that I would be ‘good’ and not cause problems. I promised I would study and do well in school, I would be respectful to my mother, and do the chores around the house. However, my prayers went unanswered and the abuse continued. I felt deeply unworthy and defective. I remember thinking ‘not even God loves me or is willing to protect me’. At that moment, hope vanished, I felt completely alone, and the world became a very dark place. I was powerless to stop the abuse so I succumbed. I had no one to turn to, not even God. I stopped praying and went into a numbed despair. I learned to ‘take it’ and resigned myself to life as I knew it”
For Claire, her image of God remained intact, but it was her relationship to God that was severely disrupted, as well as her sense of self and place in the world. She felt that there was something terribly wrong with her and not even God could protect her or answer her prayers. Thus, in Claire’s mind, she deserved and endured the abuse she experienced.
However, some of my clients and the mothers I interviewed for my book felt that their strong religious faith helped to provide meaning in their lives and gave them the strength to deal with the adversities they experienced. One client, Fatima, shared that when she was a little girl she looked forward to going to service because the sermons provided her with a sense of solace. She believed that God was always with her, loved her, and could hear her through prayer. During her most painful times, prayer offered a safe place to gain a sense of peace and detach from her worries. She said her belief in God was the light in the darkest moments of her life.
Like Fatima, a number of my clients said their faith allowed them to reframe their negative childhood experiences and gain meaning and strength from the struggles associated with their past. Their belief in a loving and protective God helped to create a sense of calm and strength in difficult times and quelled their anxiety and periods of depression. Women felt that a spiritual belief was beneficial personally and in their roles as mothers. A belief in a higher power offered comfort and helped to manage times of stress and they found comfort in prayer and the strength to deal with challenges experienced in life. Spiritual beliefs also offered a guide to structure their lives as well as offered relief and hope to manage life’s difficulties.
Religious and spiritual beliefs also helped survivors create meaning and gain courage and insight from their abuse experiences. They asserted that their strong religious faith enabled them to positively reframe difficult personal events and enabled them to view their negative experiences as important lessons in life and opportunities for personal growth.
My client Louisa had a history of excessive childhood neglect and abuse, and it interfered with her ability to develop a sense of trust in herself and her world. Her basic mistrust in herself and others filtered through all aspects of her life. However, she states that her deep spiritual belief helped her examine her childhood experiences and assisted her on the path to recovery. Through her spiritual growth, she learned self-forgiveness and compassion. She felt her belief in a loving and forgiving God helped her learn the “importance of forgiveness not only for my abuser but for myself”. Louisa felt that forgiveness for her abuser was not to “forgive” him for what he had done, but to let go of the rage towards him that was keeping her frozen in time and interfering with being able to move forward in life and freeing herself from the ramifications of the abuse.
Belonging to a religious community and having a spiritual belief are protective factors that can support resiliency after trauma. A spiritual belief and/or a positive and affirming religious affiliation can help maintain faith in something greater than oneself and can act to mitigate the overwhelming circumstances that at-risk children are exposed to. The women I interviewed also felt that being part of a religious community offered a space to connect with others around common values and beliefs. A spiritual community offered a support system of caring and strength to its members.