If you or someone you love were abused as a child, there’s no denying that it hurt. Abuse can immediately bring about pain, fear, rejection, shame, and more. Just as the types and immediate negative results of abuse vary, so does the risk of future negative impact. You or your loved one may be among those who were abused as children and now may suffer lingering problems.
Psychologists Paul Mullen and Jillian Fleming say that your risk of experiencing subsequent problems as an adult may have been influenced by:
- the type of abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, neglect, etc.)
- the severity, length and frequency of the abuse
- how old you were at the time of the abuse
- your resilience
- whether the abuser was a family member or a stranger
- how functional and supportive your family was when they found out about the abuse
- whether the abuse was kept a secret or dealt with
- whether the abuser was found out and prosecuted
Clinical social worker Anna Nelson adds another possible influence—the ability to predict the abuse. If the abuse was “predictable and patterned,” you or your loved one may have had time to create coping skills.
Consider these two situations:
- Sarah was sexually abused by an uncle on three different occasions over three years when he came to visit. The uncle convinced her at first that this was a game and a special secret they shared. She told her parents, however, after the third occurrence. Her parents confronted the uncle and took the necessary steps to see that he was prosecuted. Sally was encouraged to talk about the abuse whenever she needed to, both at home and with a counselor. Sally’s family loved her through this difficult time and reminded her that she was in no way to blame for what happened.
- Megan was also sexually abused by her uncle. The abuse happened several times over the course of four years while he lived with her family. The uncle threatened that Megan would be taken from her family to live in a foster home if she told anyone. As Megan’s mood and behavior declined over the years, her parents criticized her more and more. When Megan finally told her parents about the abuse, they expressed everything from disbelief to blame, never confronting the uncle. They commanded Megan not to bring it up again.
At a glance, it’s easy to predict that Megan is much more likely than Sarah to suffer long-term consequences from the abuse. Nelson emphasizes the role of resilience—the ability to overcome—as a strong predictor of future suffering for Sarah, Megan or anyone.
The following aspects of resilience may not have been evident in you or your loved one at the time of abuse, but they can be developed even now to help you cope:
- the presence of caring relationships
- a sense of involvement in things that affect your life
- the ability to feel connected and contribute to your community
- a sense of self-efficiency
- a good sense of humor
- the ability to somehow find meaning from the trauma
The look of future suffering
You or your loved one may have an increased risk of problems in behavioral, emotional and mental health. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the adult who was abused as a child is more likely—compared to one who was not abused—to suffer from any of the following:
- low self-esteem
- relationship difficulties
- panic disorder
- eating disorders
- attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- dissociative disorder
- posttraumatic stress disorder
- substance abuse
- criminal behavior
- either becoming abusive to others or seeking out abusive partners (this risk is reported to be largely influenced by whether the child witnessed the same-sex parent either being abusive or abused)
Do you see yourself or your loved one in the list above? Keep in mind that many children survive abuse without future complications. And adults, in general, all face a risk of depression, anxiety, etc. But you may find that you feel a very strong connection between your current pain and memories of the abuse. Looking back may help answer some “whys.” Seeking help, if need be, may help you to gain strength and assist in moving on with life in a healthy and happy way.
The aspect of resilience in which you find meaning in the trauma does not mean that you accept that the abuse was OK or that you somehow “deserved” it. It was wrong and you are not to blame. But fixing a focus on past trauma in an attitude of blame or bitterness will not help you get better either. The meaning you find may be that it taught you to have compassion for others or how to forgive even though you may want to hate the abuser or get revenge.
Your present pain and emotional state are real and valid, but you do not have to remain a victim to what happened in the past. If you or a loved one feels “stuck” because of past abuse, seek help from a counselor or other mental health professional who is trained to help adults cope with past trauma. It’s time to move forward toward healing and growth.
Abused: A Guide to Recovery for Adult Survivors of Emotional/Physical Child Abuse by Dee Anna Parrish. Barrytown/Station Hill Press Inc., 2001.
Victims No Longer by Mike Lew. HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.“Child Sexual Abuse,” National Center for PTSD, www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/child-sexual-abuse.asp