Have you or a loved one experienced childhood abuse or neglect? Read on for the effects of childhood abuse on the self, relationships, and life adjustment.
What is childhood abuse and caregiver trauma?
Childhood abuse is defined as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and/or neglect. In the United States, more than 3 million cases of abuse and neglect are reported annually. Often the abuse occurs at the hands of a caregiver or family member and can have lifelong consequences. These relational and attachment traumas are highly associated with future life distress and mental health problems. Overall, childhood abuse often leads to worsened physical and mental health in adulthood.
What are the effects of childhood abuse on children and adolescents?
Child and adolescent survivors of early childhood abuse experience consequences in multiple areas of functioning: emotion and behavior regulation, relationships with others, and processing their thoughts. When abuse and neglect begin early in life, the effects are particularly detrimental due to children’s lack of coping and soothing skills. Repetitive and prolonged abuse or neglect by a caregiver, or trusted adult in a child’s life, can lead to acute stress and a possible diagnosis of complex trauma, also thought of as developmental trauma.
Children who suffer complex trauma often experience impairment in multiple areas of life functioning and adjustment:
- Children and adolescents may develop inappropriate boundaries, such as intense dependency, or, conversely, isolation and disengagement from others.
- Due to violated trust, they view others with doubt and suspicion. These interpersonal problems lead to difficulty with empathy towards others and with social skills.
- Very young children who experience abuse fail to develop the brain capability required for regulating emotions when confronted with stressful life events.
- Children also have difficulty identifying their emotions and regulating their internal experiences. They feel lack of safety in expressing their feelings and needs to others.
- The lack of self-soothing mechanisms leads to emotional instability, reactivity, and dissociation.
- The effects of complex trauma and its effect on the developing brain further leads to problems with behavior, particularly in areas of over control or under control. Children may respond with poor impulse control, self-harming, or aggressive behavior towards others.
- Children may also engage in pathological coping strategies, such as substance abuse. Lastly, these children may also enact aspects of their trauma both in an effort to gain control and to receive acceptance and closeness
Over time, children (and adults) develop a self-concept that is fundamentally flawed, powerless, shameful, and unlovable.
What are the effects of abuse in adulthood?
Complex trauma and abuse experiences have the greatest impact when they occur in childhood. As these children grow into adults they are likely to experience persistent problems with emotional regulation, self-identity, relationship problems, and distorted thought patterns. Experiences of abuse or neglect in childhood can lead to a recurring state of anxiety, over-vigilance, and an outlook on the world as dangerous and chaotic.
Additionally, the brains of individuals who experience long-term trauma may become habitually over-activated, getting stimulated and stressed without the presence of danger. Attempts to cope with the effects of childhood abuse may lead to addiction or self-injury. As adults, these individuals are also more likely to suffer from psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or dissociation.
Overall, individuals for whom experiences of abuse and trauma persist throughout adult life undergo a prolonged form of suffering. They may be experiencing painful inner turmoil, yet likely feel hopeless that they’ll be able to heal and find peace.
How are the effects of childhood abuse treated?
Adults have numerous options in seeking treatment for the lingering effects of their childhood experiences. Therapists use a variety of methods and orientations, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), emotion-focused approaches (such as EFT and AEDP), mindfulness, psychodynamic and somatic approaches, among others.
Regardless of the approach chosen, the therapeutic relationship between the client and therapist is one of the most important factors in treatment. If you are seeking help for childhood abuse you should feel understanding and acceptance from your therapist. This positive regard will help you develop trust and allow you to work towards healing and peace.
Katrina Taylor, LMFT-Associate. 512-270-9002
Disclaimer: The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. Reading articles and content on this website does not constitute a therapeutic relationship.