I have written this article for those that are just becoming aware they have been traumatised by childhood abuse or know of someone who has. I hope I have provided enough information to help you deal with what is a devastating revelation. If you go to Categories on this site you will find lots more information which may help you.
What is childhood trauma?
The National Institute of Mental Health (USA) defines childhood trauma as; “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” However with the right support it is possible to recover even from extreme early trauma.
Types of childhood trauma
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (Felliti and Anda, 1998) classifies childhood trauma in ten categories:
Abuse of child: emotional, physical, sexual abuse
Trauma in child’s household environment: substance abuse, parental separation and/or divorce, mentally ill or suicidal household member, violence to mother, imprisoned household member
Neglect of child: abandonment, child’s basic physical and/or emotional needs unmet
The ACE International Questionnaire (ACE-IQ) was designed by the World Health Organisation to measure ACEs in all countries. It includes additional categories such as peer violence. Questions cover family dysfunction; physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect by parents or caregivers; peer violence; witnessing community violence, and exposure to collective violence.
Early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children aged 0-6. Young children may experience traumatic stress from interpersonal traumas, accidents, natural disasters, war and civil unrest as well as medical procedures or the sudden loss of a parent/caregiver. Of course childhood trauma refers also to abuse to any child under the age of 18.
Experiencing any form of childhood trauma and abuse can impact on an adult’s quality of life in fundamental ways. It can make basic day-to-day activities, such as eating, sleeping, working and study difficult. Trauma and abuse in childhood can also affect your mental health, physical health, and your relationships with the people around you.
However, research has established that recovery is possible. With the right help and support, survivors can live healthy connected lives. Understanding the effects of trauma and abuse can help survivors connect their past experiences with their present challenges, and find pathways to a healthier future.
Myths about child abuse
Myth: Child abuse is rare
Fact: All types of child abuse and neglect occur at significant levels in the Australian community (CFCA Resource Sheet, 2013). Child abuse and neglect often go undetected due to the private nature of the crime, difficulties children experience in disclosing and being believed and a lack of evidence to substantiate the crime (CFCA, 2015).
Myth: It is only abuse if it is violent
Fact: Child abuse does not necessarily involve violence or anger. Abuse often involves adults exploiting their power over children, and using children as objects rather than respecting their rights as young people.
Myth: People lie about child abuse for attention and sympathy
Fact: Research, including police and court statistics, shows that it is very rare for a person of any age to state they were abused when they were not. However, “false negative reports” of abuse are common e.g. many adults state that they were not abused as children when they were.
Myth: Children usually tell someone about their abuse
Fact: Most children do not tell anyone. They are often silenced through threats or fear of not being believed. Some children do not have the words to speak about what is happening to them.
Myth: Children ‘get over’ bad experiences in childhood
Fact: Adults are often deeply affected by childhood trauma and abuse. You cannot just “get over” it. Survivors need the right care and support to overcome the impacts of abuse, recover and live full and healthy lives.
Myth: People who sexually abuse children are mentally ill
Fact: Most people who sexually abuse children are not mentally ill. They are often married or have sexual relationships with adults as well. In anonymous surveys, a significant minority of men in the community indicate a sexual interest in children.
Myth: People who sexually abuse children have been sexually abused themselves
Fact: The majority of sexually abused children are female, and yet the majority of sexual abusers are male. Some studies have found that sexually abusive men are more likely to report a history of sexual abuse than other men. However, the majority of men who sexually abuse children do not report being sexually abused in childhood.
Myth: People do not “forget” child abuse
Fact: For over one hundred years, traumatic amnesia has been documented amongst war veterans, survivors of natural and man-made disasters, and adult survivors of child abuse. These memories can later resurface through flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts. These memories have sometimes been called “recovered memories”.
Myth: Children are very suggestible and they can easy “make up” stories of abuse
Fact: Children are no more suggestible than adults, and can clearly distinguish between reality and fantasy. Research has shown that children resist making false reports during leading and suggestive interviewing techniques.
Effects on feelings
Survivors are often out of touch with their feelings – confused by emotions or reactions they cannot explain. They have often been raised in environments in which a child’s normal expressions of upset or discomfort were punished or ignored. They may have been taught to attribute the negative emotions associated with childhood trauma and abuse, such as shame and anger, towards themselves. This confusion often persists into adult life, and can result in heightened experiences of:
- Grief and sadness
- Shame, self blame, and guilt
- Helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness
Like everyone, survivors have a right to “a life worth living” (Linehan 1993), but instead, survivors often live with chronic distress and pain. For many survivors, these emotions are so much a part of their day-to-day life that they don’t realise that there are alternatives. Unable to readily regulate their emotions they may seek to do so through alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or other compulsive behaviours. Many survivors also harm themselves out of a sense of despair. All of these ‘coping strategies’ make sense in the context of childhood trauma and abuse.
Learning about emotions – what they are, where they come from, and how to respond to them – is a crucial part of finding a path to recovery. Survivors can learn new, effective ways of regulating the intensity of their feelings, so that they don’t need to use alcohol or drugs and/or cut themselves to express their emotions. For many survivors, learning about the psychological impacts of their trauma or abuse helps them to understand why they have struggled for so long, and how they can move forward.
Acknowledging these feelings, understanding where they come from and why they are so intense is an important part of any survivor’s journey.
Effects on relationships with others and Self-esteem
Survivors often find it difficult to trust others. As children, they might have been betrayed by the very adults who were meant to nurture and protect them. As a result, survivors often find it difficult to form and sustain relationships. A large survey of adult survivors of child abuse in Australia found that survivors had a higher rate of failed relationships and marriages, and reported lower levels of social interaction (Draper, Pirkis et al. 2008).
When children are abused they come to believe the messages their abusers deliver, such as: ‘You are worthless’ and ‘You have no value’. Of course, these messages are not true, but children accept and internalise them. These messages become ingrained that, when a child who has been abused or traumatised grows up, the adult survivor will often experience feelings of low self-worth or poor self-confidence. Rebuilding self-esteem is a gradual process, but a crucial one.
Effects on physical health
Childhood trauma and abuse doesn’t just affect the mind – they can affect the body too. Children who feel perpetually in danger grow up with a heightened stress response. This in turn heightens their emotions, makes it difficult to sleep, lowers immune function, and, over time, increases the risk of a number of physical illnesses. Adult survivors are at increased risk of chronic pain and fibromylgia, gynaecological problems, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, headaches, cardiovascular disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome. They are also more likely to smoke and drink more than other people in the community, and be less physically active. These factors can all affect health and wellbeing in later life.
What is complex trauma?
The majority of people who present to services with trauma-related problems have multiple unresolved traumas (complex trauma) which often leads to severe, diverse and persistent impacts.
Complex trauma can be caused by childhood abuse in all its forms as well as neglect and growing up with family violence or dysfunction.
Any form of violence experienced within the community – civil unrest, war trauma, genocide, cultural dislocation, sexual exploitation or re-traumatisation of victims later in life can also cause complex trauma.
In complex trauma the traumatic stressors are usually interpersonal – the trauma is premeditated, planned, and often repeated and prolonged and the impacts are cumulative.
It’s important to differentiate single incident trauma often classified in terms of PTSD from complex trauma and deliver service responses accordingly as responses to complex trauma based on a diagnosis of PTSD alone are often seriously inadequate.
Where do I go to for help?
I would suggest your GP is your first port of call. They are excellent resources of referrers and can refer you to the relevant professionals who can help you. If you suspect some child you know is being abused they know the proper channels for how to deal with that and what services to involve.
There are many Organisations devoted to Child Abuse Survivors support which you can find through googling within your country’s site. They all have a Helpline. Facebook has Closed Groups which are useful for support also and good places to ask questions but you really need to contact a professional first.