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What Is Child Abuse and Why Does It Still Matter in Adulthood?

Written By: Gentle Path

By Dr. Georgia Fourlas, LCSW, LISAC, CSAT-S Dr. Georgia Fourlas, LCSW, LISAC, CSAT-S Clinical Director of Workshops, Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows

Abuse is one form of trauma, and The Meadows specializes in treating trauma. Often, childhood trauma that occurred because of child abuse is overlooked as a core issue when people enter treatment for addictions or other mental health disorders. Sometimes people minimize what they experienced as children, deny that they were abused, or believe that it happened so long ago that they are (or should be) “over it” or it’s no longer relevant. However, the long-term effects of childhood trauma often carry into adulthood. 

Sometimes people minimize what they experienced as children, deny that they were abused, or believe that it happened so long ago that they are (or should be) “over it” or it’s no longer relevant.

What Is Child Abuse?

What is child abuse? There are many definitions, and most questions’ answers are pretty complex. The Meadows uses Senior Fellow Pia Mellody’s simple yet broad definition: child abuse is any action or inaction by a parent or other primary caregiver that is less than nurturing or experienced as shaming by a child. 

This is my favorite definition since it doesn’t minimize based on intent and allows for the child’s experience of the action or inaction to be the primary defining factor. It also eliminates issues around what was “acceptable” in society at any given time. Just because something was accepted in society doesn’t mean it was healthy or okay. Society makes many mistakes.

While this isn’t even close to being an exhaustive list, here are some examples of child abuse (adapted from Pia Mellody’s book, Facing Codependence):

Physical Abuse:

  • Hitting, kicking, punching, pinching, burning, etc.
  • Failure to provide adequate physical needs (food, shelter, clothing, medical, etc.)
  • Lack of appropriate physical nurturing (too much or not enough)
  • Forced to watch or listen to someone else being abused

Sexual Abuse:

  • Any sexual contact between an adult and a child (or two children with a power differential such as age difference or more than three years) including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, touching of genitals, or other private areas
  • Poor sexual boundaries with children (not monitoring exposure, objectification, rigid or uncontained sexual attitudes, inappropriate sexual talk in front of children, etc.)
  • Failure to protect a child from sexual abuse when the risk is known or should reasonably be known (a family member who has been accused of sexually abusing a child is permitted to babysit)
  • Lack of sexual information, too much sexual information, or sexual misinformation given to children

Emotional Abuse:

  • Failure to provide emotional nurturing (ignoring, neglecting, abandoning, etc.)
  • Refusing to allow a child to express their feelings (“stop crying or I will give you something to cry about,” “get over it already,” etc.)
  • Demonstration of improper expression of feelings by caregivers (yelling, belittling, sarcasm, ridiculing, demeaning, raging, silent rage, side-ways anger, guilting, etc.)
  • Overindulging or overprotecting
  • No accountability or limits set
  • Emotional isolation or being forced to keep unhealthy secrets

Intellectual Abuse:

  • Attacking or shaming a child’s thought process
  • Ridiculing for being “too smart” or “not smart enough”
  • Failure to provide education
  • Failure to support a child with a learning disability or who is gifted
  • Demanding perfection
  • Over-controlling or forcing religious beliefs
  • Hypocrisy
  • Failure to provide spiritual nurturing
  • Any abuse by a spiritual leader
  • Using spirituality to instill fear
  • Occult or radical religious practices

Peer or Social Abuse:

  • Bullying or being teased by siblings or other peers

How Does an Abusive Childhood Affect Adulthood?

Trauma impacts the brain. Children have brains that aren’t fully developed. After surviving abuse, children’s brains are forced to develop in a stressed or dysregulated state. This can lead to a lifetime of challenges with self-regulation. Childhood abuse can increase the likelihood of unhealthy relationship patterns, addictions, anxiety, depression, obesity, suicide attempts, chronic health issues, and sexually transmitted diseases. 

That final list could just as easily begin with, “People most frequently seek treatment for…”.  While most people are motivated to therapy or treatment for symptoms, the best treatment also addresses the underlying and historical issues that pre-date the symptoms. Signs of abuse in adults are often a result of a person’s maladaptive attempts to cope with stress and dysregulation. When underlying issues aren’t addressed, symptoms may return, or new symptoms may surface to replace the ones that were treated.

Childhood abuse can increase the likelihood of unhealthy relationship patterns, addictions, anxiety, depression, obesity, suicide attempts, chronic health issues, and sexually transmitted diseases. 

Signs of Long-Term Effects of Child Abuse

Some long-term effects of abuse appear instantly, while other signs of abuse in adults can take months or years to surface. Child abuse can increase the likelihood for various health problems, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Child abuse negatively affects the amygdala and hippocampus, the areas of the brain that process emotions and play a significant role in memory and learning. As a result, these individuals often have improper brain development.

Other signs of childhood abuse in adulthood are substance use disorders and psychological and behavioral issues. Many victims cope with their childhood trauma by abusing drugs and alcohol as they grow older. These individuals are also likely to develop anxiety, depression, PTSD, anorexia, and bulimia as they re-experience these painful memories. Childhood trauma’s negative effect on the brain makes these individuals more susceptible to developing these issues.

Types of Therapies for Childhood Trauma

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to treat various psychological disorders. CBT is more effective in treating anxiety and depression than traditional therapies and medications. It helps people manage their thoughts, moods, and behavior through a structured, action-oriented, problem-solving approach. This treatment allows people to process their trauma to reduce its impact on their present-day life. 

Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectal behavior therapy (DBT) is a modified form of CBT that identifies and changes negative thinking patterns to effect positive behavioral change. This treatment focuses on teaching people self-regulation skills to help them manage their emotional reactions after traumatic experiences.

Eye Movement and Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR)

People often re-experience painful memories when they have childhood trauma. Eye movement and desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) uses sensory input to change how the brain processes external stimuli, alleviating the psychological impact of traumatic experiences. 

When to Seek Trauma Treatment

Some people need inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment after surviving abuse when their symptoms are so disruptive to their lives that day-to-day functioning is impaired. Some people require less intensive treatment but still want something specialized and focused on dealing with their core issues and childhood trauma. The Meadows and its sister programs offer highly individualized treatment services that encompass trauma and related mental health conditions on many levels. 

Childhood trauma can be addressed at all of The Meadows’ programs. The Meadows signature workshop is Survivors, an essential component of its inpatient treatment programs. It’s an intensive workshop focused on addressing childhood trauma. The Survivors workshop is also a stand-alone intensive for people who don’t need long-term treatment.  

Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows offers a five-day Survivors workshop for anyone who is interested and who meets the criteria for admission. Please call our intake department for information on enrolling in a Survivors workshop or for any of our treatment programs. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. For more information, go to April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

April 19th, 2018

Categories: childhood trauma

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