Loyola University Maryland

Counseling Center

Surviving Childhood Abuse

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Childhood abuse can consist of many different experiences. Adults who have lived through experiences of abuse are often referred to as adult survivors of childhood abuse. Statistics are difficult to obtain because of the secrecy and shame that often surround such abuse, but we do know that such abuse occurs in all races, religions and economic classes.

Childhood abuse can be classified as physical abuse, emotional abuse or sexual abuse. While each consists of different experiences, with some variations in resulting difficulties for the victim, each involves a violation of the child's trust in an adult or authority figure—a parent, babysitter, sibling, older friend, coach, teacher, clergy member, and so on. Each have many similar effects.

When children are exposed to abuse, they learn to protect themselves through denial, withdrawal, approval-seeking, turning off their feelings, acting out and self-blame. Using these coping mechanisms during childhood has long-term consequences, which can include lack of trust, a fear of change and resultant difficulty in adjusting, difficulty knowing or showing one's own feelings, being easily stressed and acting on that by abusing substances, food, and one's own body, and feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth.

The aftereffects can be grouped into three basic categories: physical, behavioral, and emotional. In the case of sexual abuse in particular, physical aftereffects can include urethral, mouth, vaginal and anal injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, and bedwetting and soiling. Behavioral effects can include nightmares and sleep difficulties, compulsive masturbation, sexual acting out, running away, suicide attempts, difficulty touching or being touched, and promiscuity. Emotional effects can include feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, and depression, an inability to trust, difficulty with intimacy and relationships—romantic, friendly, and even family, including with one's own children. There can also be a sense of isolation, withdrawal, and poor communication skills.

There is also a link between childhood abuse and eating disorders and substance abuse. There can be a significant fear of medical exams and procedures and a resultant avoidance of medical and dental care. It is not unusual to blame one's body and to act that out in self-mutilation—burning and cutting oneself, or even repeated plastic surgeries in an attempt to change the body's appearance.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not uncommon. These can include amnesia, nightmares (common themes are being chased, stabbed or suffocated), dissociation (the sense of zoning, or leaving the body) and flashbacks. It is not unusual for flashbacks to be triggered by seemingly innocuous events, smells, sounds, or images. This can be quite disturbing and cause people to feel crazy.

Because survivors of childhood abuse have learned that they cannot protect themselves and that abuse is normal, their life choices often bring about a repeat of the pattern and experience of being abused. It is not unusual for survivors to put themselves in dangerous situations. They often become rape victims, and often choose abusive partners. Although some victims go on to become abusers, this is not necessarily the case.

Surviving childhood abuse means getting help with its aftereffects. People can recover from abuse but getting help is very important, and it is also important to realize that treatment takes time. The typical states of recovery include denial, acceptance of what happened and the resultant grief, rage and anger, and finally resolution. Resolution consists of placing responsibility where it belongs, freeing oneself of blame, learning to feel safe, creating a positive perception of oneself and forgiving oneself.

Few people can do this on their own. Rarely are even close friendships enough to help by themselves. It takes time to heal and it is courageous to confront these painful and difficult experiences. Counseling is the most effective way to overcome these effects. Therapy with a counselor you feel comfortable with can help you to:

  • Create a safe place to explore the destructive and hurtful childhood experiences;
  • Allow you to not be alone and break the secrecy;
  • Give you a place to overcome the feelings and conflicts that have not been resolved;
  • Teach and allow you to practice new coping skills;
  • Create a place to explore who you are, develop a positive self-image and sense of yourself;
  • Cope with the feelings of hopelessness and anger when they surface;

It takes time to heal from painful experiences that have been dormant for so long. Be patient with yourself, give yourself time and space to recover. Call or stop by the Counseling Center to make an appointment with one of our counselors. They understand what you are going through. Additional information is available from the National Child Abuse Hotline. They can be reached at 1-800-422-4453.