Children are entirely dependent upon their caregivers for everything, food, clothing, reassurance, and mental stability. When this dependence is broken by abuse, children feel rejected and struggle for any attention the child can gain from their caregivers.
This phenomenon is known as betrayal trauma, where the child depends upon their caregiver for survival, and the adults in their lives violate their trust or well-being.
While betrayal trauma also involves infidelity and intimate partner violence, we will be focusing on child abuse for the sake of this article.
What is Betrayal Trauma?
Jennifer Freyd, in the 1990s, coined the concept of betrayal trauma to help describe what happens to a person when the people they depend on violate the person’s boundaries and mistreat them.
In children, child abuse crosses all the child’s boundaries and leaves them feeling deceived and confused. Betrayal trauma involves a loss of trust in the caregivers in a child’s life, translating into a lack of trust in anyone they encounter.
The betrayal comes in the form of not only not receiving what one needs to survive but also in the fact that caregivers of these children do not protect them. Even if the caregiver did not commit the abuse, their child feels betrayed and alone.
Because of the lack of meeting needs and protection, children (and later adults) may develop the following signs:
Trouble recognizing or managing emotions
Great difficulty trusting others
Substance abuse disorders
Thoughts or actions of suicide
It is critical to understand that these signs and symptoms do not end in childhood but will persist into adulthood if not treated.
Attachment Theory and Betrayal Trauma
Children are born to instinctually attach to their caregivers for survival. It is not a choice they make, nor can such attachment be ignored. Our earliest childhood relationships are so vital that they create the groundwork for other relationships later in life. When the bond between child and caregiver is solid and secure, they make secure attachments in adulthood.
However, when the bond between child and caregiver is interrupted by abuse to where the child cannot depend upon them, they form insecure bonds that will affect the person for their entire lifespan.
A parent is responsible for protecting and caring for their children, and there is an unspoken contract between parent and child. Typically, children trust their caregivers entirely until the caregivers break that contract by letting them down.
When a parent fails to protect their child, the betrayal deeply contradicts what the child expects, so they block out the memories of what has happened to them to maintain some form of attachment. By blinding themselves to what happened and fear of future betrayals, the child finds other ways to escape, such as dissociation or the formation of dissociative identity disorder if the abuse is repeated and horrendous.
By forgetting the abusive episodes, the child ensures they can survive even in the face of horrific circumstances they cannot escape. The ability to forget becomes a coping mechanism, as does the formation of alters to hold the memories away from the central self.
Healing Betrayal Trauma
Betrayal trauma leads to adults dealing with ongoing trust issues in their adult relationships and reeling with self-doubt. Often, children subconsciously look for a partner who is like their parents, and if the parents are abusive, they may end up in an abusive relationship where they cannot trust.
Adults who deal with childhood trauma by dissociating the memories of what happened away will eventually face resurfacing memories and emotions of that abuse. One may not be capable of blocking them again, and even if you can, it will not help you heal.
While the road to healing does not look the same for everyone and is a rocky road to travel, there are some things you can do to help yourself take your first steps.
The first move is to find support from someone who can be trusted. In this author’s mind, the best person is a therapist who understands betrayal trauma theory and is trauma-informed. You cannot heal from complex trauma or dissociative identity disorder on your own. You need someone to bounce things off of and who will listen without judgment.
Next, put the blame where it belongs, on the shoulders of those who betrayed your trust. You were in no way responsible for what they did and did not do. However, you are responsible for what you do today, which means working hard to get free from the harm the caregiver did to you.
Thirdly, stop obsessing over the why’s over why your caregivers betrayed you. For one thing, understanding why your caregivers hurt you won’t make a significant difference in how their behaviors affect you. For another thing, the why’s are unimportant and will not empower you to end it because it happened in the past. One cannot change the past or control the actions of others. Stop it.
Fourth, set boundaries to establish an emotional safe haven. To set boundaries, one must be 100% honest with you and everyone you know. This honesty needs to be accompanied by humility, willingness to meet your needs, and to take responsibility for any abusive behaviors (to yourself or others) you may have adopted from those who harmed you.
Fifth, and last, take good care of yourself and meet your own needs. If you need clothes, food, love, or acceptance, go looking for it in safe and healthy environments. Do not allow yourself to go hungry as a punishment or get yourself into an unsafe relationship. If you find you have already done so, forgive yourself, get out of that relationship and move on. You are worth protecting from unhealthy relationships with others and yourself.
Ending Our Time Together
Betrayal trauma is complex involving the maltreatment of children by their caregivers of their trust that the child can depend upon the parents for love, acceptance, and protection. When adults betray children, they leave indelible scars that will persist into childhood.
Dissociative identity disorder is a response to betrayal trauma as the child grows to attempt and, in many cases succeeding in pushing away the knowledge and memory of their abusive childhoods.
Healing is possible from betrayal trauma, and many of the methods of doing so are beyond the scope of this piece. However, seeing someone, you can trust and allowing the memories of what happened to surface in a safe environment can set you on the road to healing.
“Pain is a pesky part of being human; I’ve learned it feels like a stab wound to the heart, something I wish we could all do without in our lives here. Pain is a sudden hurt that can’t be escaped. But then, I have also learned that because of pain, I can feel the beauty, tenderness, and freedom of healing. Pain feels like a fast stab wound to the heart. But then healing feels like the wind against your face when you are spreading your wings and flying through the air! We may not have wings growing out of our backs, but healing is the closest thing that will give us that wind against our faces.” ~ C. JoyBell C.
Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Freyd, J. J., DePrince, A. P., &Gleaves, D. (2007). The state of betrayal trauma theory: Reply to McNally (2007) — Conceptual issues and future directions. Memory, 15, 295 – 311.
Freyd, J. J., Klest, B., &Allard, C. B. (2005). Betrayal trauma: Relationship to physical health, psychological distress, and a written disclosure intervention. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 6 (3), 83 – 104.