“Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun;

not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.”

(Dave Pelzer, author of ‘A child called ‘It’’)

For most of us, the word ‘childhood’ should invoke idyllic memories – of playtime, laughter and fun; of both ordinary days and spectacular days spent with friends and doting family members; and where the word ‘exams’ would be the only word to awaken dread. Most of us have been fortunate enough to have been blessed with such a back-story. As parents, it’s possibly the most fervent prayer we have for our children, that they pass through childhood unscathed by trauma and pain.

Can you cast your mind back to some of the happiest memories of your childhood?

And yet, reality teaches us that all too often, this is not the case. We witness and hear stories of children going through unspeakable experiences, and we are filled with anger at the adults who deliberately perpetrate these crimes. In my therapeutic work with children and adolescents who have gone through experiences of trauma and abuse, I am always saddened by the knowledge that these physical and psychological scars often stay etched for years, even for a lifetime. But at the same time, I am so often amazed by the resilience of such kids, and their ability to bounce back from trauma and adversity.

It is quite apparent that child sex trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) of children, ticks most of the boxes related to trauma. Any chance at a ‘normal’ or typical’ childhood is destroyed when children are separated from family and forced into such a life. Imagine the pain, hurt and sense of betrayal that this could bring, especially when the child’s own family members or trusted persons are responsible for this. Imagine the dread, the fear, the horrible anxiety and uncertainty that a child must face when torn away from all that is known and familiar, and compelled into terrible acts that no one of their age should ever be exposed to.

Imagine also, the appalling daily reality of being forced to work in a brothel, under the power of adults, whose only concern for the child’s well-being is to ensure that there is a satisfactory in-flow of income. Research has indicated that such children are at the receiving end of psychological manipulation and coercive methods by the traffickers, which makes it almost impossible for them to escape on their own. Traffickers might resort to physical, emotional and sexual violence, isolation, and supervising victims’ access to basic resources of food and water in order to control them (Rafferty, 2008). It comes as no surprise that children (and for that matter, any victim of trafficking) might most often face physical violence and abuse from traffickers, brothel-owners, and customers.

In addition, children who are trafficked often already come from disadvantaged socio-economic circumstances, and CSE takes them even further from educational opportunities. This has long-lasting implications; not just are these children being deprived of the ability to expand their knowledge and abilities, they are also restricted in terms of choosing other career options at a later point. They are often forced to live in inhumane conditions, with poor diet and hygiene; injected with steroids to push their bodies to develop faster than is normal; and are compelled to live through unsafe sexual practices, with poor access to medical care – all of which exposes them to health complications, both now and in the future.

Given all that a child in such a circumstance is facing, is it any surprise that she is likely to face feelings of pain, shame, guilt, depression and anxiety, and a tremendous loss of confidence? Isn’t it understandable that she might have difficulty in trusting adults around her, including those who might be well-intentioned in their attempts to help her? Isn’t it perfectly understandable that such children might resort to coping behaviours that we find hard to understand?

It is true that we, sitting in the comfort of our homes, might never come close to experiencing first-hand or fully understanding the trauma that a CSE survivor might go through. But we can try our best to see the world through their eyes.

References:

Rafferty, Y. (2008). The impact of trafficking on children: Psychological and social policy perspectives. Child Development Perspectives, 2(1), 13-18.

About the Author: Dr. Preethi Anne Ninan is a Clinical Psychologist, having completed her MPhil and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS). Her research and clinical focus as a Ph.D. Scholar and Junior Consultant in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Unit, NIMHANS, Bangalore, was with children and adolescents with emotional and behavioural problems, and their families. She currently practices as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in Bangalore.

We are happy to announce that Dr Ninan will be contributing a blog regularly and helping us understand how trauma affects child and adolescent mental and emotional development, and the lives of quiet desperation that victims and survivors lead if they don’t receive timely intervention.