Childhood abuse takes many forms and causes profound and pervasive damage that can last a lifetime. Adults who suffered some form of abuse as children often continue to suffer with the psychological and physical repercussions. They often feel that something is “wrong” with them, that they are “damaged” while other people are “normal”.
Abuse has many forms, physical being the most outward and easily recognizable . According to the Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal, physical abuse includes but is not limited to the following acts:
• Shake, push, grab, or throw: includes pulling or dragging a child as well as shaking an infant
• Hit with hand: includes slapping and spanking but not punching
• Punch, kick, or bite: includes any hitting with other parts of the body (e.g., elbow or head)
• Hit with object: includes hitting with a stick, a belt, or other object, throwing an object at a child, but not stabbing with a knife
• Other physical abuse: any other form of physical abuse including choking, strangling, stabbing, burning, shooting, poisoning, and the abusive use of restraints.
Most cases of physical abuse toward children have occurred in a context of punishment. Similarly, one third of substantiated emotional maltreatment incidents in Canada also considered to have been initiated as a form punishment.
Adults then, having grown up with parents who physically abused them while calling it “punishment” or “consequences” or even “teaching” will have a skewed vision of healthy boundaries, anger management, respect for themselves, respect for others, safe behaviour and even the nature of love.
Besides physical abuse, childhood abuse is more than bruises or broken bones. While physical abuse is clear due to the scars it leaves, not all child abuse is as obvious. Emotional Abuse, Neglect and Sexual Abuse can be subtle and more difficult to recognize. Children and even other adults may unaware that abuse is even occurring:
• Failing to provide for a child’s basic needs: food, hygiene, supervision, clothing, sleep
• Withholding food as punishment
• Putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations
• Limited physical contact with the child—no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection
• Exposing the child to material inappropriate to their developmental age
• Long periods of time when a child is left alone
• exposing them to violence or the abuse of others, or a pet
• forcing them to perform violent acts on another person or a pet
• exposing them to adult sexual behaviours
• touching children sexually
• coercing a child to touch an adult sexually
• coercing a child to watch pornography
• treating a child as though they are a fully sexualized adult
• Constant belittling, shaming, and humiliating a child
• Calling names and making negative comparisons to others
• Telling a child he or she is “no good,” “worthless,” “bad,” or “a mistake.”
• Frequent yelling, threatening, or bullying
• Ignoring or rejecting a child as punishment, giving him or her the silent treatment
• Giving them adult responsibilities
• Manipulation using guilt, shame, fear or control
All types of child abuse and neglect leave lasting scars. Some scars might be visible, but invisible emotional scarring has long lasting effects throughout life, damaging an adult’s sense of self, ability to have healthy relationships, and ability to function at home, at work and at school. Some effects include:
- Lack of trust and relationship difficulties. Abuse by a parent or guardian or trusted adult damages the most fundamental relationship as a child—the relationship that was to provide safe nurturing physical and emotional care. Without this foundation, it can be very difficult to learn how to trust people or to tell who is trustworthy. Often adults with abuse scars choose to surround themselves with people who are also scarred and unsafe, as this feels familiar and the adult doesn’t know what a good relationship is. Or they may avoid relationships altogether due to fear of being controlled or abused.
- Core feelings of being “worthless” or “damaged.” Children who have been given the message that they are stupid or worthless repeatedly throughout their life tend to believe it. They create a self-image based on the messages from their abusive caregiver. It can be very difficult to overcome this core self-image as it feels “real”, and the adult may not have an experience of anything different. The adult may limit their accomplishments in life, settle for less education, less pay, and less responsibility because they believe their feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. Sexual abuse survivors, especially struggle with the stigma and shame of the abuse, and often feel tainted, abnormal or damaged.
- Trouble regulating emotions. Abused children did not learn how to express emotions safely, and often learned to stifle them, only to have them come out in unexpected ways. Adult survivors of child abuse often struggle with bouts of anxiety, feelings or depression, or outbursts of anger. They may present as unstable emotionally and may “self-medicate” with alcohol or drugs to deal with confusing or painful feelings.
Therapy for Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse
It is known now that adult survivors can heal from childhood wounds with the right support system. It is often not an easy road to recovery of the self, but it is always worth the effort.
Megan Hughes has worked with adult survivors in many forms over the years. From private practice, to volunteer at Vancouver Association of Survivors of Torture, to child and family therapy through Vancouver Coastal Health. Her experience has taught her that when an adult recognizes that something is wrong, that bad things happened to them when they were young or that they still feel the pain of their childhoods in their lives today, that the path to healing has already started.
She takes a gentle approach with vulnerable and hurting adults. It is like working with the child who was abused. Adults can be scared, avoiding the pain, and reluctant to tell the whole painful story. She is patient and helps to make connections between who the adult had to become in order to survive, and who the person really is deep inside.
Megan Hughes frequently uses EMDR to reduce the overwhelming feelings of pain and fear when recalling childhood abuse, as well as to quickly reconnect the survivor with their strengths and resources.
She also recognizes that it is the safe relationship between client and therapist that does most of the healing. When a client is given permission to be their true selves, to express their inner feelings in a clear, assertive and safe way with another person, they can begin to experience self-respect and they can begin to know what a good healthy relationship feels like.