The price of child abuse is manifold and huge beyond belief. Be it sexual, physical, manipulative or abusive it is all the same, the damage is monumental. Perpetrators have no excuse for what they do be it for pleasure, neglect, mental illness, sadism or just downright cruelty the effect is the same. The outcome is the same. A sad, lonely, damaged person results, scared for life. Not just physically scared. Those scars can heal. It is the emotional scars that are the difficult ones that are wretchedly hard to mend. They are not like a broken leg that can be set in a plaster for six weeks and repaired. It can take years of therapy and still a person’s emotions can remain shattered with self-esteem broken, mind shattered suffering daily flahsbacks, tormented by PTSD or Complex PTSD, surviving mind-bending trauma. The damange done during childhood remains with us for life.
When humans are young, their world revolves around their parents or primary care-givers. Parents or care-givers are the primary source of safety, security, love, understanding, nurturance and support. Child abuse violates the trust at the core of a child’s relationship with the world (Walker, 1994). When the primary relationship is one of betrayal, a negative schema or set of beliefs develops. This negative core schema often affects an individual’s capacity to establish and sustain significant attachments throughout life. Survivors often experience conflictual relationships and chaotic lifestyles, frequently report difficulties forming adult intimate attachments and display behaviours that threaten and disrupt close relationships (Henderson, 2006).
Many survivors’ lives are characterized by frequent crises e.g. job disappointments, relocations, failed relationships, financial setbacks. Many are the result of unresolved childhood abuse issues. The reasons are complex, but for many survivors ongoing internal chaos prevents the establishment of regularity, predictability and consistency. Many survivors function in ‘crisis mode’, responding with stopgap measures which don’t resolve the underlying issues. This can be exhausting and dispiriting and contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness (The Morris Center, 1995).
Professor Bessel van Der Kolk, Harvard Medical School conducted a five year study of 528 trauma patients from American hospitals. This study identified a range of symptoms that correlated well with prolonged severe childhood sexual abuse:
… the inability to regulate emotions like rage and terror, along with intense suicidal feelings, somatic disorder, negative self-perception, poor relationships, chronic feelings of isolation, despair and hopelessness; and dissociation and amnesia’.
The implications are that real-world childhood… trauma may be responsible for many psychopathologies usually considered to have endogenous origins, including various kinds of phobic, depressive, anxiety and eating disorders, not to mention borderline personality, antisocial personality and multiple personality disorder.
A number of studies have explored the relationship between childhood trauma and later health concerns. Research has found that childhood abuse contributes to the likelihood of depression, anxiety disorders, addictions, personality disorders (Spila, Makara, Kozak, & Urbanska, 2008) eating disorders, sexual disorders and suicidal behaviour (Draper et al., 2007). A study by Palmer, Brown, Rae-Grant, & Loughin (2001) with 384 survivors of childhood abuse found that survivors of child abuse tended to be depressed, have low-self esteem, and to have problems with family functioning. A recent study found that almost 76% of adults reporting child physical abuse and neglect have at least one psychiatric disorder in their lifetime and nearly 50% have three or more psychiatric disorders (Harper et al., 2007). Adults with abuse histories also present with physical problems more frequently than those who have not experienced abuse (Draper et al., 2007). Furthermore, child sexual abuse has been found to be a key factor in youth homelessness with between 50-70% of young people within Supported Accommodation Assistance Programs having experienced childhood sexual assault (van Loon & Kralik, 2005b).
The long-term impact of child abuse is far-reaching; some studies indicate that, without the right support, the effects of childhood abuse can last a lifetime. This study by (Draper et al., 2007) found:
- Child abuse survivors demonstrate
- Poor mental health: are almost two and a half times as likely to have poor mental health outcomes,
- Unhappiness: are four times more likely to be unhappy even in much later life
- Poor physical health: are more likely to have poor physical health.
- Childhood physical and sexual abuse
- Medical diseases: increases the risk of having three or more medical diseases, including cardiovascular events in women
- Relationships: causes a higher prevalence of broken relationships, lower rates of marriage in late life,
- Isolation/social disconnection: cause lower levels of social support and an increased risk of living alone
- Behavioural health effects: is associated with suicidal behaviour, increased likelihood of smoking, substance abuse, and physical inactivity.
The impact of child abuse does not end when the abuse stops and the long-term effects can interfere with day-to-day functioning. However, it is possible to live a full and constructive life, and even thrive – to enjoy a feeling of wholeness, satisfaction in your life and work as well as genuine love and trust in your relationships. Understanding the relationship between your prior abuse and current behaviour is the first step towards ‘recovery’.
Over two decades of research have demonstrated potential negative impact of child abuse and neglect on mental health including:
When recently in a Public Mental Health Hospital for an attempted suicide attempt for three months I met some amazing people. The reason for my attempt was as a result of my Complex PTSD and flashbacks which dog me daily following being the victim of a paedophile ring organised by my parents as a child from the age of four to eighteen in Ireland in the 1960/70’s. At times I become overwhelmed by the re-experiences and can no longer cope and suicide seems the only way out. Make no mistake I love my family husband and family dearly and that partly drives the suicide. I feel I cannot subject them to living them with my Disorder any longer. They disagree but my Dissociative Identity Disorder takes over and my Mother Alter, who drives the suicidality wins. It’s the most dreadful conundrum. Luckily I survived the most recent serious attempt. I have to fight on.
In the hospital, I met many extraordinary people whose stories mirrored mine. They too had suffered at the hands of their parents. Such appalling cruelty. Such wonderful people who had so much to offer the world. One person in particular stood out. We sat for many an hour doing a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle together. At first, we sat in companionable silence. We were like two fish out of the water. We didn’t belong in the Mental Health Ward. The psychotic patients and other very ill patients were triggering our PTSD right left and center. The nurses didn’t understand our condition. Somehow we gravitated towards each other like two kindred spirits. Gradually speech started. Slowly at first. Mundane things like what were our names, where did we live, how many children did we have. It was a couple of weeks before we discussed why we were there. That happened one day when Kerri starred shaking uncontrollably and crying. I held her hand and we just sat there at the puzzle like that for an hour. Then she told me she was having a flashback of her mother hitting across the face with a hairbrush which she repeatedly did throughout her childhood. She called her a fat, useless child. Regaled her other siblings and called Kerri useless, locking her in her room never letting her play with her siblings or other children. Often she never let her go to school. The story went on in that vein. It was heartbreaking.
On other days. I would have flashbacks and would end up in the corner of the room cowering and sobbing, shielding myself from my mother’s raining blows from her shoes. Kerri would gently talk to me and coax me back to my puzzle. Gradually we bonded and helped each other through those flashbacks in a way no one else except my psychotherapist could.
She was a school teacher and talked so passionately about her job. Those children were so lucky to have her as a teacher. She told me about her individual children she taught. I sat with her as she wrote them individual letters each week letting them know she hadn’t forgotten them and she wrote about me, her new friend telling them about my farm and horses. They wrote back to her. One week I wrote the whole class a letter for her. Women like her will survive her trauma but it will a long road. She is truly an inspiration to me but the cruel damage that parental abuse brings about is reprehensible. Just awful.