severe and repeated trauma during youth may have enduring effects upon both neurobiological and psychological development altering stress responsivity and altering adult behaviour patterns … these individuals experience a greatly increased risk of mood, anxiety and personality disorders throughout adult 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: