One of the most important things we can do when parenting children who suffered trauma is find a good therapist for them. As part of that task, we need to find a good fit between our child, the therapist, and the type of therapy. A new study gives us some new data to consider in finding that fit.
One long-running controversy in trauma therapy is whether and how much to delve into memories of abuse. In a recent study, researchers uncovered indications that people who don’t remember abuse, or at least don’t report it to interviewers, have better mental health than those who do. It’s only one study, but it does suggest that people who don’t make the abuse a central part of their self-narrative tend to have better mental health over time.
The researchers interviewed almost 1200 adults over 15 years, looking at their mental health status in areas such as depression and anxiety. The adults did not know that the researchers had deliberately chosen more than half of them from documented official records showing that they had suffered childhood abuse. Of that group, more than 2/3 reported the abuse and higher levels of anxiety and depression than the control group. The 252 adults who reported abuse, but whose records showed no objective findings, also reported high levels of abuse. But the 173 people who did NOT report abuse, despite court records showing they had suffered from it, reported no more anxiety or depression than the general population.
The researchers caution that this study is small and does not support any sweeping generalizations. But it is a data point that we should note in looking for evidence-based therapy models. As one of the study’s co-authors pointed out, the study may indicate that therapies that seek to uncover repressed memories are counterproductive. “But [Dr. Danese] cautioned that the results of the study should not be interpreted as endorsing the avoidance of distressing memories, which could make them ‘scarier’ in the long term. Instead, they point to the promise of therapies that seek to “reorganize” and moderate memories.”
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist not involved in the study who has long been skeptical of the reliability of memories of abuse, “noted that the study stops short of another conclusion that could be supported by the data: Forgetting about abuse might be a healthy response. ‘They could have said, people who don’t remember in some ways are better off, and maybe you don’t want to tamper with them,’ she said.“
This study alone will not support that conclusion. But it is in line with other studies showing that people who avoid making victimization the center of their identity have better mental health outcomes. Those of us who parent trauma survivors should keep this study in mind as we try to help our children move past their trauma.