Can Kids Remember Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Children may only remember feelings, not actions, of early sexual abuse.

January 8, 2009, 1:35 AM

Oct. 4, 2007 — -- Many may wonder how a girl who was raped and filmed for a child pornography tape could ever be considered a "happy, and perfectly healthy little girl" just a few years after the assault occurred.

But according to the Nevada mother whose daughter was discovered last week to have been featured on a sex abuse tape when she was only 2 years old, the child is not reeling from the traumatic events. In fact, she is actually doing quite well.

In a press conference Wednesday, Jerry Donohoe, the family's attorney who read the mother's statement, said that he did not believe the girl has any idea what happened to her.

"I believe she had no memory of the event," said Donohoe, who also said that the girl had been reviewed by psychologists since the tape was discovered.

While we only have the statements of the mother and lawyer to gauge the condition of the child, the case raises questions about how young children remember traumatic events and whether it is possible that this girl in question may not remember -- also known as suffering "traumatic amnesia" -- the very events that put her in headlines nationwide.

"It is possible that if a child is sexually molested at a very early age that they might not have a recollection of the incident," said Dr. N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist who has not treated the girl in the Nevada sex tape. "There would be the possibility of some kind of memory [of the incident] but not necessarily the kind of memories we talk about."

The traumatic experience, Berrill said, may be translated into nervous or timid behavior by the child, who does not understand exactly what happened or may not be able to remember the specific events. As a result, the child is only able to recall the feelings and sensations that occurred during the incident.

"Developmentally, the younger you are the less you remember well or accurately," said Berrill, who is the director of New York Forensic, a psychiatric consulting group. "Kids remember sensory memories -- they don't have memories that are coherent like XYZ occurred, but they remember that they felt a lot of tension or fear."

But Berrill, like many psychologists consulted, said that how much a child remembers varies considerably depending on both the child involved and the extent of the abuse.

"[The effect on the child] depends to some extent on what actually happened and the nature of the experience," said Dr. Joe Scroppo, a clinical psychologist and attorney who concentrates on child abuse cases. "It's possible that whatever occurred wouldn't be perceived as hurtful [to the victim] depending on how the perpetrator interacted with the child. On the other hand, if it was done in a violent or scary way, then it's possible the child would express negative emotions."

If an assault occurs more than once, Scroppo said, the effect on the child is likely to be worse. In the case of the Nevada girl, it has not been made clear whether the sex tape was the only instance of sexual assault or whether the perpetrator habitually raped the girl.

"I think many people would be shocked to learn how many people have inappropriate sexual experiences as a kid and are molested and still turn out OK," said Berrill. "But subtle residual effects still occur."

"I think she could lead a normal life," added Berrill. "She still might have to be in therapy later on if she's respondent to the abuse in the sense that she's more timid or more fearful toward men or strangers."

And for those victims of sexual assault who do appear to be well-adjusted in the years directly following the traumatic experience -- much like the Nevada mother insists her daughter is -- some psychologists say it is still possible to have a "delayed" reaction to the incident.

"Some people who are traumatized -- which depends on what happened -- can block it out and disassociate it and don't connect and don't remember the trauma," said Dr. Bob Geffner, the president of the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma at Alliant International University. "They might live a 'normal' life for who knows how long because they blocked out the trauma and then sometime later it could be triggered."Experiences including sexual relationships and scenarios involving trust and honesty, Geffner said, could all be things that may trigger a victim's memory about prior traumatic experiences.

Again, depending on the child, there are many cases where people who were assaulted at very young ages never address the assault in their adult lives, leading researchers to believe that their traumatic amnesia or repression of the memories was never disrupted by trigger events.

"There is not enough research to show that everyone [who is sexually assaulted at a young age] is affected," said Geffner. "Some people overcome and are resilient."

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