On March 18th of 2024, the world was hit with a bomb. That was the night that Investigation Discovery released their new documentary series, Quiet on Set, which explores the abuses that were taking place on Nickelodeon sets in the early 90s through the early 00s. The details were many and they were brutal.

Child stars from shows such as All That, Drake and Josh, The Amanda Show, Zoey 101, and others detailed how they were exposed to a plethora of abuses both on and off of Nickelodeon sets. Audiences were horrified as they watched scenes and outtakes of children performing acts of sexual innuendo on camera.

The real horrors, however, came when Drake Bell told his story. It was a nightmare of abuses and failures. The Nickelodeon mega-star was subjected to the worst possible sexual acts at the hands of adults he trusted. In the end, when it all came to light, he was still forced to work on sets with people who protected his abusers.

Drake’s story is sadly not unique and not common. Millions of children are traumatized just as he was, in the same way, every single day around the world. They are harmed by the adults they love, and sold to predators who destroy them. Their pain doesn’t end when the sexual abuse or complex trauma ends, either. It follows them as they internalize the experience and ask what they did to deserve such pain.

What happens to children exposed to complex mental, emotional, and sexual trauma?

The revelations of the Quiet On Set documentary were explosive. Not only were we confronted with the horrible working atmospheres on Nickelodeon sets, we were exposed to the tragic abuses that many of the children working on those sets experienced.

Any child who is psychologically and sexually manipulated, abused, and tortured as those child stars were runs the risk of developing C-PTSD. This trauma is deep-rooted and dynamic, following children throughout their lives and manifesting in several different symptoms, behaviors, and outcomes such as:

  • Lack of impulse control
  • Internalization and self-blame
  • Extreme emotional reactions
  • Low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Poor attachment to caregivers
  • Delayed cognitive development
  • “Failure to thrive”
  • Sleep regulation and lethargy
  • Poor concentration and
  • Headache, stomach ache, chronic pain
  • Becoming withdrawn socially
  • Emotional detachment
  • Hypervigilance and anxiety
  • Brain damage

That is a long list of symptoms that can manifest themselves in a dozen different ways. However many of the patterns repeat in children who have been victimized or traumatized at a young age.

These children develop a warped sense of self. Their confidence is destroyed, and many also lose the ability to emotionally regulate. We see children who lash out and have major explosions to small stimuli. The other side is also true. Some children exposed to complex trauma shut down emotionally and detach themselves from parents, caretakers, friends, and siblings.

All of these symptoms do not end with childhood or the trauma that the child experiences. They linger, and all of them shape that child’s perception of self and their perception of the world. That changes things. But nothing changes a child or damages them quite like the internalization of the trauma they’ve experienced.

The greatest cost of childhood trauma is a lingering self-blame.

Ask any survivor of complex physical, psychological, and sexual trauma and they will tell you that the scars run deep. When these abuses occur in childhood, it changes the child’s entire perception of self. The root of that is the internalization. As the child tries to make sense of their pain, they direct their focus inward.

This internalization is, with little doubt, one of the greatest costs of complex childhood trauma.

Children don’t come into the world with fully developed frontal lobes. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that helps us think rationally. As adults, when this lobe is fully developed (after the age of 25) we can experience stress and trauma and “make sense” of it. We can see experiences and find lessons, point to accountability, process, and move on.

It’s not the same for children.

For children, they cannot rationalize the complexities of the adult world. They don’t understand things like mental illness, projection, emotional immaturity, etc. Cognitively, they can’t process those realities, so when bad things happen to children they internalize those events. They blame themselves and assume that they must be the cause of the pain they’re in.

This is no small, isolated event. Children learn to blame themselves for their trauma and this carries into adulthood. This affects their self-esteem, their self-worth, and the sense of self from which they build their lives. All of this lingers, adds up, and creates toxic relationships and toxic environments for these adult survivors who think, “I must have brought my trauma onto myself.”

How do we help children (and adults) escape the internalization loop?

It can seem defeating when one looks at the scope of the internalization issue. Can it be stopped? Can it be helped? Of course, it can. Parents and caretakers can make a concentrated effort to help their children understand their experiences, and survivors too can beat the loop by finding and creating safe spaces for themselves.

Some of the best ways for parents and caretakers to get their children out of the internalization spiral:

  • Age-appropriate education
  • Compassionate communication
  • Creating safe spaces

Age-appropriate education should be a primary goal of any parent or caretaker both before and after a traumatic event. The best path is the path of prevention. Sharing books, characters, movies, and stories, with children that demonstrate the realities of life’s complexities. Here, it is up to the parent to do their research. What is the best way to communicate these big topics for the child’s developmental and cognitive age?

Parents whose children may have experienced complex trauma need to focus on compassionate communication as well. The nervous systems of their children could be damaged. Their ability to speak softly and with care will be central in helping their child regulate themselves and learn about the emotions they’re dealing with.

Creating safe spaces within households and communities is another key factor in combating the dangerous internalization of trauma that children experience. It’s not realistic to think that parents and caretakers can mitigate every instance of trauma in their child’s life. That’s why they have to make sure they are open and safe for their children to approach when tough things happen.

Children need to feel safe telling their parents, caretakers, and communities about the things that are happening to them. They should feel secure to feel their big feelings, and should not have fear in telling their parents what has happened to them.

Disclaimer: It is not always possible for parents and adult survivors to shift these feelings of internalized guilt and shame alone. If accessible, the help of a qualified professional should always be sought.

***

Trauma is a life-altering experience that damages our children and changes the trajectory of their lives. As we see these horrors exposed, as they were in the Quiet on Set documentary, we have to ask ourselves — what can we do to stop this? What can we do to make sure that no child has to live through the horrors that Drake Bell and all the others were exposed to?

Because the answer is that we have a responsibility.

As we wake up to reality, as we heal our trauma and build awareness, we have a responsibility to step up and break the cycle. We do that by speaking out. We do that by exposing predators and holding them accountable. Most importantly, we do that by taking care of the children. By looking out for them and making sure they have safe spaces to open up and be helped in.

Are you providing that safe space for your child? Are you looking out for them? Teaching them that the pain of the world, that your pain, is not their fault? That’s the place to start. Drop by drop. Little by little. As we open our eyes and our hearts, we can make a difference and change this horrible human cycle once and for all.

© E.B. Johnson 2024

Get Coached by Me. Apply Now.