The Beatles had the right idea in their song, “Hey, Jude,” about taking a sad song and making it better. Cruelty to children is one of the saddest songs in the human songbook. Children lack not only the physical strength to resist but also the emotional capacity to process their negative experience. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) can be an effective therapeutic tool for processing childhood trauma but there are still things you can do yourself to “make it better.”
Try to recall a particularly disturbing childhood memory, then use your imagination to think of ways to improve the memory. Suppose your memory involves having your pleas for attention repeatedly ignored, with disastrous results. You might “re-write” the memory so that your parents respond right away. You may recoil if your first response includes an image of violence on your part. But reflect: in certain circumstances, violence is an appropriate response. If, for example, you saw someone abducting your child, you would not say politely, “Please don’t do that.” You would take all necessary steps, not excluding violence, to prevent the abduction.
In the event that you have suffered childhood abuse of one sort or another, an imagined violent response may be entirely appropriate. You may endow your intervening adult self with imaginary powers to deal effectively with the situation to interrupt or prevent the abuse. Remember, in most disturbing childhood memories, an adult who should have protected you failed to do so, for whatever reason. So when, in imagination, you project your adult self into the scene, you are very likely acting in place of a negligent caregiver. Childhood abuse may also take the form of neglect. This need not involve dramatic situations like being locked in the cellar. You should ask yourself the question, when you were in need, did your caregivers respond reliably, unpredictably, or not at all.
Regardless of what you do to thwart the abuser, in your imagined “re-write,” be sure that your response includes direct personal attention toward your younger, vulnerable self. Imagine putting your (adult) arm around Little You, offering assurance that the danger has past, and promising that henceforth you will always be there. Remember that the phrase, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood” includes certain responsibilities. You recover that happy childhood by offering Little You messages that you may never have received during your actual childhood: you are valued; you are accepted; you are loved; you are understood; you are respected. Providing these long-delayed messages is an important part of “making it better.”
Resolving and processing cases of severe childhood trauma usually requires psychotherapy, but the technique of using your imagination to reframe the situation in a detailed re-visioning can serve as a useful adjunct to therapy.
Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.
Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.