Hi, I’m wondering if it’s possible that a childhood trauma I experienced didn’t actually traumatize me.

Here are some details for context:
I was 7 and in an art program with my best friend and another girl (age 14ish). This older girl was nice to me; she played games and helped with art projects. As nice as she seemed, I think I was uncomfortable around her.

One day when it was just me and her in the room, the other girl made me sit on her lap and touched me inappropriately. It didn’t last very long before my teacher returned, but was extremely upsetting.

My parents had told me that I should tell someone if anything like that happened, so I told my mother that night. I remember the police coming to our house and having to go to the hospital for tests. I also remember asking my mom what would happen to the girl, saying that she was nice and I hoped she didn’t have to be punished. Strangely, I think I felt kind of good about what was happening? I was embarrassed and afraid, but thought something important was happening to me for the first time ever.

I believe that event must have been traumatic, yet I don’t think I experience any of the symptoms I’ve read about. I haven’t repressed the memory and don’t get flashbacks; it’s one of the moments in my childhood that I remember most clearly. I self-harmed throughout high school and had panic attacks for several years, but I don’t think these were related to what happened — a close family member died during freshman year, so I think that caused these issues. I’ve seen therapists and taken anxiety medication, but never brought up what happened. I’m embarrassed to talk about it and worried my therapist would assume it caused my other issues, which I don’t think it did. I’m more uncomfortable than my friends when talking about sex — it makes me feel panicked — but I can write and read about it, so I assume that’s just shyness. I know that I didn’t cause what happened or deserve it. So is it possible that it just didn’t traumatize me? I don’t want to be traumatized, but I’m confused about why it didn’t affect my mental health, and I sometimes wonder if my lack of “damage” means that I made it up.

Thank you for writing to us. There are several features in your story that I believe are important to highlight, as all traumas do not cause the same results. Indeed, there are instances, in fact, quite a good percentage of times, when the “trauma” leads to something known as Post Traumatic Growth (PTG). PTG is something well-researched as this article by the American Psychological Association describes, and this article by Dr. Bret Moore at Psych Cental explains

In your trauma, you were directly motivated to deal with it. You moved toward the conflict, rather than move away from it. You had a feeling of empowerment to deal with what happened rather than run away from it, hide it, or be shamed by it. You told your mom and she responded in the right way. In other words, you did all the things to move through it successfully and your mom responded in exactly the way she should have by believing you, supporting you, and getting the authorities involved.

Still, there was the initial betrayal by the older girl. She befriended you then abused you. This alone may have had some effects as being betrayed by someone you’ve trusted is often the greatest pain. The fact that you’ve not revealed this to any therapist, still feel embarrassed by it, and panicked when you talk about sex means that it still has an influence over you.

Keeping the secret, feeling shame and embarrassment, and believing it may be related to your other issues is important to honor. What happened and how you’ve dealt with it may need to be discussed to determine what, if anything, it has to do with the other issues. To my way of thinking it is a win-win situation in that if you can talk about it and learn its influence on you — or lack of influence on you — you’d be in a much better position to cope.

I’d recommend telling the therapist you have now, or if you are not in therapy to find a trauma therapist who can help you sort through the situation. You did all the right things at the time and this might be a way for you to finally release the secrecy and embarrassment around it.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan
Proof Positive Blog @ PsychCentral