The Adult Aftermath of Child Abuse

Complain about the present and blame it on the past. I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass. Get over it . . . The Eagles, “Get Over It”

Child abuse survivors are everywhere. They are teachers, drug addicts, heads of corporations, blue-collar workers, and artists. They can be shy, boisterous, studious or lively. So why is it that despite seeming normalcy, and even success, that some surviving adults—including those who’ve worked hard to get “over it”—still feel substantially different from their peers?

There are at least four long-term or permanent consequences to child abuse that are rarely discussed :

Brain Damage – Higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol are found in infants and young children who have been neglected or abused. Permanent damage includes death to nerve cells in key areas of the brain and, depending on the extent of abuse and neglect, impaired brain development. There are higher mortality rates throughout the lifespan of a neglected child, as well as marked social and behavioral differences.

Hypervigilance – A child who has an abusive parent or caregiver learns very early on to be on the lookout for possible threats. They become “wired” to be overly sensitive to everything in their environment, including the body language, words, and moods of other people; noise; crowds; and movement. This wiring, which began as circumstantial, is not likely to end with age, or with the end of the threats. It becomes, instead, a “natural” part of a person’s sensory package. To unlearn it would be the equivalent of a non-abused person learning not to see, hear, taste, or smell.

Anxiety & Social Disorders – Abused children may grow up and look like everyone else, but if their differing brains and responses to environmental stimuli aren’t obvious, their high level of anxiety and other social differences might be. Adults who were abused as children are more likely to have difficulty with relationships, eating disorders, chronic depression, insomnia; panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, suicidal ideation and more.

Experience ­– Although we live in a culture of convenient ideologies (get over it; pick yourself up by the bootstraps; it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you feel about it), the fact is that the totality of experience matters, mentally, emotionally, and physically. A person does not have to exhibit the obvious dysfunctions of Harlow’s monkeys or the deprived children of Romanian orphanages in order to be changed by childhood abuse and neglect—yet it is a common assumption that if someone looks and acts “normal” then they are, or should be, capable of being unaffected. In practice, this assumption only increases the anxiety that many survivors feel. While in the process of healing what they can heal for their own benefit and mental health, survivors may also feel charged with the task of negating their life experiences, or at least hiding the affects from them, in order to fit in and make other people feel more comfortable.

Unfortunately, the affects of child abuse don’t end when a survivor leaves home or reaches some magical age. There are real and long-term consequences that, contrary to popular belief, have nothing to do with a “victim mentality”, or a desire to wallow in the pain of past events, or even (as I’ve heard it suggested many times by hardnosed critics) a need to feel “special” and gather sympathy.

In fact, most survivors would wish less for sympathy than for understanding. Sympathy tends to be temporary and fleeting—it’s what we express at funerals and when we read horrible news stories—whereas understanding promises a more lasting, more inclusive, level of acceptance for differing life experiences and outcomes.

 

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