Friday, December 10, 2010

Abuse. Messes. Kids. UP.

Obviously, child abuse and neglect happens more than it should (which would be: not at all). And actually, it happens more than officially reported (that came from an official report).

Kids who have been victims of maltreatment (neglect or abuse) are at very high risk for some very bad things--throughout their lives. Major school conduct problems. Drop out or expulsion. Depression. Suicide. Arrests. Alcohol and drug addiction. Teen pregnancy. STDs. All sorts of physical health problems.

What happens in childhood doesn't stay in childhood. It follows you.

If you're writing a story that has a theme of childhood abuse, recovery from abuse, or lingering memories of abuse, keep that in mind. It's not something a person would endure, be kinda sad about, and then move on from, unaffected. Even if that character is high functioning, able to cope, he/she would be dealing with the effects for a lifetime.

In general (because, of course, there is a lot of variation), abused children:

  • Are less able to enjoy positive interactions with adults.
  • Have smaller brains overall, and in several specific areas. These areas control things like planning, decision-making, and exercising judgment.
  • Are not as good as recognizing emotions. Show them an angry face, they see anger. Show them a frightened face, they see ... anger. Imagine how that might affect a kid's interaction with classmates.

Teens who have been abused have brains focused on primative survival--and not on advanced thinking and reasoning. They are more impulsive. They have trouble in complex social situations.

But what if you're writing a character who's being abused? Well, then you have some extra things to think about. Take the MC in Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl. She has been living the nightmare of severe (understatement) abuse and deprivation for five years. A third of her childhood, of her life, has been spent in the hands of a sadistic pedophile.

And it shows.

That's what's so masterful about the book, in my opinion (apart from the spare, unflinching, beautiful writing). The MC exhibits all sorts of signs that what she's experienced has marked her deeply. It's clear she's not OK, and how could she be? No one would be after living her life. She has trouble organizing her thoughts, making plans, and problem-solving. Her ability to form relationships and trust others is nil. She's got some other symptoms, too, which would be important to consider if you've got a character who's going through something this severe:

Blunted affect: The MC reports and appears to exhibit very few emotions. She reports being numb, insulated and distant from her emotions. She says that others notice that there's something "wrong" about her. I wondered if she had a "thousand-mile stare," a term coined after WWII to describe shell-shocked veterans. Blunted affect is a known symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Depersonalization: The MC feels very detached from herself, both in the present (when bad things are happening) and in the past (she talks of her younger self as if she were a different person). Chronic depersonalization, which is what the MC displays, is associated with severe trauma. A person experiencing depersonalization will feel separated from their physical reality, watching oneself without the ability to control anything.

Learned Helplessness: The MC isn't locked in a basement. She goes out in public--by herself. But she never tells anyone she's been abducted or abused. Why? She doesn't think it will help. She doesn't believe she can get away from the pedophile. And in some ways, she's right. She's had some experiences that have taught her that people look away and do nothing, even when they believe something might be wrong. So, even when presented with opportunities to save herself, she doesn't. Uh, by the way, here's a link to a National Child Abuse Hotline.

Of course, as I've already mentioned, each person is an individual, so not every abuse victim behaves the same way. But for folks who are writing YA characters who have already lived a century of suffering in their short lives, it makes sense to try to understand what early abuse experiences do to a developing brain.  If you want to read the facts or do some background research, you could go here and do some exploring.

So far, my finished manuscripts all include at least one character with a trauma history. Not sure why, but that's how it is. How about you? Do you gravitate toward these characters or prefer to steer clear? And what about your reading tastes? When you hear about a book like Living Dead Girl, do you want to read it, or do you want to stay away?


  1. Books like Living Dead Girl are the books I live to read. My manuscripts too hold at least one trauma victim, mostly it's the MC. I have a fascination of digging deeper into the human consciousness.

    Brilliant post.

  2. Great post as always. This doesn't apply to any of my books right now, but I'll definitely keep it in mind. :D

  3. Oh, my. I believe I would stay away from books like that. Same reason I couldn't read "Lovely Bones." It painful to watch someone go through that ... and I'm sensitive. ;-)


  4. i don't know why, but books (or movies) like that intrigue me to no end... and they stick with me for a long, long time. every story i've worked on so far has a character (or characters) who have suffered emotional trauma- not all stemming from abuse, but trauma nonetheless.

  5. I am so glad I discovered your blog! I love psychology, and I love YA. This is a great post. I'm currently doing a beta read for someone who is writing about a girl undergoing severe physical abuse from her father, and it just doesn't ring true. He beats the crap out of her at home, then she goes to school and everything is hunky dory. I've been wondering where to send her to read about why it's sounding so flat, and this is perfect. Thanks!

  6. Bee and Aspiring_x--yes, me, too. Although I see some very sad things in my work, I'm still interested in beautifully written, psychologically complex portrayals of humanity--both the resilient and the not-so-resilient.

    JD--yeah, you have to know what you can handle. I was talking to another psychologist the other day who feels exactly as you do.

    Brigid--thanks so much! You're absolutely right--unfortunately, abuse, neglect, and trauma do have far reaching effects. Although even one appropriate relationship with an adult (like a teacher) can do wonders, most children who live in conditions of chronic deprivation and maltreatment definitely have trouble functioning in their other environments.

  7. I read it last year. It is an overwhelming book. I rarely say that my 14 year old can't read a book yet. I told her she couldn't read that one yet.

    Abuse from childhood continues with you forever. I think if you are strong enough (not a doctor...disclaimer) you can recognize what happened to you was wrong and be certain to not do the abuse to your child, but the pain and self worth issues will always be with you.

  8. I haven't read Living Dead Girl yet, but it is a book that I've been drawn to...that and many other novels with difficult subject matter. Sometimes I've had trouble reading memoirs with this type of content because I am sensitive and it upsets me sooo much, but even when I know that there is truth to a novel, it's somehow different for me. Not really sure why.