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Long-Term Effects of Childhood Abuse & Neglect

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Many people who were abused as a child continue to feel the effects of it far into adulthood. This doesn’t depend on how old you were when you were abused or even if you are able to remember the abuse. New neurological studies have shown that being abused as a child can cause actual changes to your brain’s development which can resemble someone who has had a traumatic brain injury. These injuries are what cause you to have ongoing symptoms.

When you read this article, I don’t want you to give up hope that you can get better, because your life absolutely can improve! I’m writing it because many people who have survived abuse feel so isolated as if they are the only ones going through what they are. I’m hoping that by reading this, you will learn that you are not alone. There are many, many people experiencing similar issues as you.

Physical effects of Childhood Abuse

There are many different physical symptoms and illnesses that you may be experiencing as an adult who survived childhood abuse or neglect. I’ve listed a few of them below:

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  1. Depression

  2. Anxiety

  3. Eating Disorders- as a way of controlling your world when you really feel out of control

  4. Substance Abuse- using drugs and alcohol to numb your feelings, as a way of connecting with others (“I always was the life of the party when I drank”), or as a way of rebelling against authority/an unfair world

  5. Obesity

  6. Chronic pain

  7. Insomnia

  8. PTSD with symptoms such as anger, easily startled, negative thinking, self-doubt, distrust of others, intimacy problems, reliving of trauma through nightmares or flashbacks

  9. BPD or borderline personality disorder which is characterized by wide swings in relationships, moods, and overall functioning.

Emotional or Social Effects

People who have experienced abuse in their past also might notice a number of different social issues in their life that can be directly related to their history. I’ve listed some of these below for you. Remember, just because I’ve listed something does not mean that you do or will have that particular problem. These are just some of the common things that can occur.

  1. Poor emotional regulation skills. Emotional regulation basically means that you can manage your emotions in an appropriate manner. Some examples of problems in this area would include getting excessively angry at a child being messy and screaming at them, temporarily getting lost on your way to your friend’s new home and crying uncontrollably about it, or when you become so angry at your boss that you literally are unable to work any more and home to go home early.

  2. Social awkwardness- perhaps you don’t know what to say, are afraid of saying the wrong thing, think others think you’re strange, don’t know what to do with your hands when talking with someone, etc

  3. Withdrawal and loneliness- instead of feeling awkward, you decide to always stay home instead by yourself leading to chronic feelings of loneliness

  4. Difficulty reading social cues correctly- you have trouble reading other people’s emotions and you’re not quite sure what it is that they mean. You never are sure if other people like you or not.

  5. Difficulty correctly identifying emotions

  6. Ongoing feelings of guilt and shame over events that were outside of your control

  7. Feeling out of control of your life

  8. Engaging in impulsive, unhealthy ways of getting your needs met such as addictions, inappropriate sexual relationships, or compulsive behaviors.

Effects on Relationships as an Adult

An adult survivor of abuse will often have difficulties forming and maintaining close relationships with others. This can be with a significant other, friends, or even family members. Below are some of the issues you might be experiencing.

Inability to trust

When you are a child, you are wholly dependent on the adults surrounding you to care for you. On your own, you wouldn’t have food to eat, you wouldn’t have a warm place to sleep, you wouldn’t even have light at night. Your adults were supposed to love and protect you. When they failed to do this, for whatever reason, you learned that the world was a scary and dangerous place. You learned that others could not be trusted to have your interests in mind. For many, this difficulty or even inability to trust has followed them into adulthood causing difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships.

Avoidant attachment

If you were abused by those who were supposed to love and protect you, you learned not only that people can not be trusted, but you may have never learned how to form a healthy attachment with others. This is something that is usually learned as a young child through our interactions with our caretakers. You may instead have learned to not rely on others and have developed an avoidant attachment style.

Ambivalent attachment

Another thing that is often seen in abusive and neglectful homes is a caretaker who may one day be loving and caring, then abusive the next. This tends to bring about a style of attachment in which you greatly desire intimacy with others and are always watching the other person on the lookout for waning affections. This can be very difficult on relationships as the other person may feel that you don’t trust them.

Disorganized Attachment

People who have this type of attachment style greatly crave intimacy yet are fearful of it and so may push people away or strike out in apparent anger at loved ones. This is because it’s so much easier on the ego to push someone away before they can hurt or reject you.

In Summary

There are lots of different situations, symptoms, and issues that you might be experiencing now that stem from your childhood. Know that you are not alone! Many people with your background experience similar issues! It does not mean you are crazy! Often things that are now causing you problems in your life were ways that you developed to protect yourself when you were younger! And since no one was there to teach you other ways, you never learned healthier ways of coping. The good news is that you can learn new ways now, no matter how old you are!

If you would like to pursue trauma treatment for your history of childhood abuse or neglect, please follow the link for more information. I’d love to hear from you!


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