Empathy, Trauma, and the Quest for Connection

What lies beyond the ‘Why’ of Childhood Abuse?

Can you develop empathy after childhood abuse?

Amy Punt
6 min readNov 16, 2023

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A small kitten on a bed to communicate vulnerability and trust.
Photo by Kote Puerto on Unsplash

I’m thinking about empathy, something I feel for animals and infants, even children under five, but not for anyone else. I can perform a certain amount and even believe that I feel it. But if I’m being honest with myself, I’m much better at feeling empathy from the safety of my couch as I stare at a screen. Please don’t ask me to participate.

Anne Salter, in her book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapitsts and Other Sex Offenders, quoted a forensic psychologist who said that “sexual abuse is a trauma that affects the development of the self, and the self is the seat of empathy. If you don’t have a well-developed sense of self, you can’t have a well-developed sense of empathy”. Salter argued that many sexual offenders lack empathy for their victims because they have not resolved their trauma and have distorted beliefs about themselves and others.

Most people experience life-altering trauma without turning into Ted Bundy or Richard Ramirez. But, understanding what happens to a brain that suffers the devastating impact of child abuse can help us better navigate the intricate relationship between trauma and behavior. While Anne Salter highlights the connection between sexual abuse, the development of the self, and empathy, it’s crucial to recognize the complexity of human responses to trauma. Not everyone who undergoes significant trauma becomes a perpetrator of heinous acts.

That’s good news for me and other survivors, but it can make this line of inquiry feel labyrinthine. What’s the point of understanding if it doesn’t lead to the missing link explaining the why behind it?

I think understanding the impact of child abuse on the brain can shed light on the various ways individuals cope and navigate their lives after such experiences. The journey to understanding emphasizes the importance of mental health support, intervention, and rehabilitation for survivors and potential offenders alike. Recognizing the nuanced effects of trauma can contribute to more effective prevention and treatment strategies, fostering a society that prioritizes healing and empathy over perpetuating…

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Amy Punt

As a child, writing saved my sanity. As an adult, writing saved my life. Now, I write in hopes of helping someone else.