The Deleterious Effects of Child Abuse

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

For those who mistakenly believe that the damaging effects of child abuse are outgrown by childhood this information may come as a painful surprise. The fact is that the effects of child abuse last into adulthood and throughout one’s life. Its effects are often deleterious, meaning that the impact is often delayed and slow to develop but acute when they do occur. The consequence is that many adults who were abused during childhood experience its worst effects long after they have entered adulthood.

Males and females of all ages, ethnic groups and races come to the therapist’s office seeking help for depression, anxiety and marital problems. In many of these cases the spouse or significant other has accused the patient of being abusive to their children or to themselves. Even when there is no present issue of child abuse, the patients who come for treatment are wearing the scars of having been abused during their childhoods.


What Are the Symptoms of Child Abuse in Adulthood?

An interesting observation about adult survivors of child abuse is the fact that many see no connection between their present life problems and the abuse they suffered as children. In fact, some people deny that the extreme punishment they suffered was abusive. Finally, many of them are convinced that they deserved what their parents did to them.

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In their adulthood, the symptoms experienced by these patients are similar to those of other people:

1. Low self-esteem.

2. Chronic, low level depression.

3. Generalized anxiety caused by no particular event in the present.

4. Panic attacks usually associated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

5. Social isolation due to a lack of friendships.

6. Conflicted and difficult marriages.

7. Dissociative disorders in which the survivor of child abuse goes into a "fugue" state in which they are unaware of what they are doing or where they have been. It is a defense against stress which, when it happens, brings the person back to the original childhood trauma.

8. Most of the other symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

Symptoms experienced mostly by those who were abused by children:

1. Lack of trust in other people. Sometimes this distrust can resemble paranoia.

2. Chronic feelings and thoughts of guilt about anything and everything that happens to them and to others.

3. A tendency to choose partners who continue the abusive behaviors they experienced during their childhood. Some of these people do become abusive but, most often they continue to re-experience abuse in their lives.

4. A fear that underneath, they are just like the abusive parent and that, therefore, they are inherently evil or are a "bad seed."

5. These feelings and thoughts are tenacious and are resistant to anyone giving this person any kind of compliment.

6. Even when these patients learn that they were abused at the hands of one or both parents, there is a continued tendency to explain away parental abusive as having been deserved.


There are a number of important approaches to therapy for adults who are survivors of child abuse. Of course, anti depressant medication helps with feelings of depression and anxiety. However, medication alone cannot change learned patterns of thinking and behaving caused by mistreatment during childhood. Consequently, it is important to engage in ongoing psychotherapy in order to learn how to place these early traumatic events into context. In addition, it is important to learn new and healthier patterns of thinking that are more adaptive and helpful to the individual. To these ends there are two types of therapy that can be helpful: 1) Psychodynamic or Psychoanalytic Therapy, or 2) Cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Whatever type of psychotherapy is entered into, the choice of therapist is more important than the type of therapy, in this clinician’s opinion. It is important that the therapist be warm, accepting, interactive and empathetic to this type of patient. To this end, many people ask for a free consultation in order to determine whether or not they feel comfortable and can work with the therapist.

One of the authors of books about the harmful effects of child abuse is Alice Miller. Her classic book is entitled, Drama of the Gifted Child, explains how child abuse affects the living and thinking of these people. In addition, she has written many other worthwhile books on the subject.

We are interested in your comments and stories. Please send your comments, questions and experiences, using the link below the end of this article.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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