Nobody survives childhood unwounded. And many kinds of stressful or frightening experiences can become sexualized along the way, leading to problems later on. And yet whether or not there is lasting damage depends on a myriad of factors such as the age of the child, their temperament, the presence or absence of support outside and inside the family, birth order, and the particular traits of the caregivers and many others.
So given the child’s unique developmental trajectory, a seemingly ordinary set of circumstances can be very damaging, leading to addiction or other problems for some or it can leave no lasting scars for others.
The sex addict’s typical childhood
Many sex addicts report being abused as children or teens. And in fact a relatively high proportion of people seeking help for sex addiction had some sexually inappropriate or abusive experiences in childhood. According to Patrick Carnes, 81% of sex addicts in treatment experienced sexual abuse in early life and 72% experienced physical abuse. However a whopping 97% reported experiences of emotional abuse.
In addition, 77% of sex addicts reported coming from a rigid family system but 87% reported having grown up in a disengaged family system.
What does this mean? If we accept that early relational trauma is key to the formation of addictions, and if we need to understand it in recovery, then some addicts will be unable to pinpoint any memories or events that were obvious instances of abuse.
Defining relational trauma
Childhood relational trauma does not always involve physical or sexual abuse. Emotional abuse, shaming, emotional neglect, touch deprivation, abandonment experiences and medical trauma, among others, are all circumstances which disrupt the child’s ability to feel consistently safe, supported and nurtured, sometimes called attachment injury. The lack of an emotionally nurturing and supportive attachment with a caregiver is by definition a form of abuse or trauma, even when there is no overt act of abuse.
Forms of childhood trauma in “normal” families
In healthy parenting, there is a great deal of energy flowing from the parent to the child.
The parent is tuned in to the child’s feelings and needs; the parent is most often ready, willing and able to respond to the child appropriately when there is a need to. And the parent is helpful and protective and promotes the welfare of the child. All of this demands that energy flow from the parent to the child for the benefit of the child. In the examples below, it is evident that the energy is flowing the wrong way; it is flowing from the child to the parent as much as or more than the other way around.
- Narcissistic parents
Parents may be disengaged because they are narcissistic. That is they see their child in terms of what that child can do for them. They may put undue pressure on the child to perform in various ways, to achieve, to look or behave in ways that the narcissistic parent believes reflect positively on them as a parent. This may be presented to the child as a good thing; i.e. “we want you to be the best, you are exceptional, you can do anything.” This puts pressure on the child to measure up to the parent’s image and expectations for them. And this can work in reverse if the child is seen as reflecting badly on the parent. The child will then experience extreme emotional abuse and lack of support due to the parent’s wounded narcissism.
And narcissistic parents are often likely to be over-indulgent. Being over permissive fails to provide needed support and is a form of neglect which sometimes leads to the child getting hurt a lot and having to fend for him/herself.
- Enmeshment and role reversal
The blurring of generational boundaries is a clear form of abuse. When a parent makes a child into an extension of him/herself they are violating that child and interfering with his/her ability to individuate and form a self. When a parent makes a child into a confidante or tries to be part of the child’s life as an equal, they are not only failing to act as a caregiver, they are violating that child’s right to be a child. Children are not ready to be burdened with the responsibility of being a caregiver to their parent. In addition, treating a child like a friend or partner makes the child into an object to be used. Unfortunately this is often mistaken for being loved or being “special” to an adult. (See also the important books by Dr. Ken Adams on covert incest.)
- Emotional dysregulation in parents
As with the children of alcoholics, the highly emotional parent causes serious attachment injury to the child. Instead of providing a consistent, nurturing environment, a parent to becomes unpredictably volatile, rageful, or negativistic puts an inordinate amount of stress on a child. Many children in these situations become very fearful and anxious, and often play the role of attempting to regulate their parent and make everything OK.
In addition to the above examples there are other unusual circumstances which can lead to relational trauma and it’s after-effects in children. A parent can be disengaged in some way due to a prolonged illness or some other challenge. And children who experience medical trauma, serious illness or surgery in childhood, are deeply affected. And the presence of addictions in parents or caregivers is very common among sex addicts, which itself provides an emotional and possibly genetic basis for addiction in a child.
The bottom line is that childhood trauma of one sort or another is evident in the lives of most sex addicts if look carefully enough. Often the addict needs to cut through the fog of childhood and look at their early experiences with new eyes. Re-interpreting the formative events becomes the key to understanding their power.