How to Live Your Life as an Adult Survivor of Child Abuse

Updated on September 27, 2018
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M. D. Jackson is a college psychology professor, family counselor, and a mother of nine adult children.

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Childhood Abuse Can Cast a Long Shadow on the Abused

As a psychology professional, I can tell you the definitions of abuse. We can discuss all the ways a parent can emotionally cripple the soul of a child. While this article will cover those topics, it is also going to be brutally honest. What I will share with you, I have never admitted to anyone outside of family.

I come from an abusive household. I come from a household full of fear, anger, and violence. Under the facade of a typical middle class family, we lived in the constant terror provided by my Father. You too may have been through a horrifically painful childhood. However, if you are reading this now, you are a survivor, you are tough, and you can have good life past the abuse.

We live in the reality that not every parent is a good a parent. Thousands of parents every year are implicated in the murders of their children. Every year, 3.6 million referrals are made to child protection agencies, involving more than 6.6 million children (ChildHelp.org, 2018). These were just the cases of abuse and neglect that were visible to an adult or social worker investigating. Many more unreported or unknown cases are out there. Some parents drag their kids into their drug and alcohol use, or illegal activities. What if it was your parent? What if you survived the abuse and pain at the hands of your parents? This article is for all of you out there struggling with adulthood after abuse and trying to end the cycle of abuse.

Definition of Abuse

"Treat with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly."

–Oxford English Dictionary

What Is Abuse?

There are three types of abuse recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA):

  1. Mental Abuse: This may include verbal abuse, emotional abuse. I would even consider the exposure of small children to scary movies and/or violent video games abusive since a child’s brain reacts the same to both the real threat and the imaginary threat.
  2. Physical Abuse: This is usually associated with beating, hitting, or other physical mistreatment but may also include neglect.
  3. Sexual Abuse: This involves any inappropriate physical contact with a minor—or anyone, for that matter. It also includes forcing a child to view inappropriate materials.

Abuse Changes People

Your brain is wired for survival. Every situation in which you feel threatened causes your brain to constantly calculate how you will survive. With abuse, your brain tries to figure out how to get through the event—both physically and mentally. Over time, this process begins to change your brain. People who experience childhood trauma have issues with frontal lobe functions and delayed response by their cortex to calm your frontal lobe (Streeck-Fischer, A. Van der Kolk, BA. et al., 2000). That means that your brain may respond too quickly to external stimuli—before you can even consider the possible consequences of your actions. Have you ever yelled in a situation when it was inappropriate? Maybe you have screamed spontaneously in response to a loud noise. These are indications that different regions of your brain no longer communicate properly with each other to prevent you from overreacting when situations are not threatening.

I call the rewiring of your brain through events “imprinting." Think about it like programing a computer. When you program a formula in a computer, the computer will react a certain way when a certain stimulus is presented. Your brain learns in a similar way. Your subconscious is constantly recording events and searching for a reaction that will create the right outcome. In an abusive home, children rarely find a good reaction, so their brain learns to panic. The imprinting is negative and continues to be negative unless you reteach your brain.

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Effects of Mental Abuse

APA (2014), stated: “Children who had been psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and suicidality at the same rate and, in some cases, at a greater rate than children who were physically or sexually abused." Depression was noted as the most common side effect of psychological abuse (APA, 2014). Anxiety disorders, attachment disorders, and substance abuse were also prevalent in people who experienced psychological abuse at a young age.

Effects of Physical Abuse

Studies have shown that physical abuse may have less obvious consequences than broken bones and bruises. People who were abused have issues with their neuroendocrine system (the regulation of brain and spinal cord activity by hormones) and development. “This system helps regulate our moods, our stress response, our immune system, and our digestion, amongst other things.” (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2018). Cozolino (2002) noted that fight-or-flight reflexes are intensified in people who experienced childhood abuse. Even memory is affected by psychical abuse. In children, it causes them to have learning issues in school. In adults, it may cause memory fog.

Effects of Sexual Abuse

Not everyone is affected by abuse in the same way. In general, the effects of abuse (all types) include depression and eating disorders. Childhood sexual abuse is common in the histories of patients with schizophrenia (Friedman, T., Tin, N., 2007) and bipolar disorder (Hyun, M, Friedman, SD, Dunner, DL, 2000), although more research is needed to determine if the abuse directly causes these mental disorders. In a study of bipolar disorder, Hyun et al. (2000), found that sexual abuse was a part of the subjects' past in a significant number of cases. Why are we seeing these extremes in diagnosis?

At the very least, we know that sexual abuse can cause people to have difficulty in adult relationships, especially in intimate situations. When your perceptions of sexual relations are associated with mistrust and violations, it is difficult to have a healthy sexual relationship—even with someone you love. Even the strongest of people continue to have issues in their adult relationships.

How to Live Your Life After Abuse

Overcoming abuse is never easy. Sometimes, the best a survivor can do is figure out how to function as normally as possible—both in their thoughts and in their actions. I use to be jealous of those people who never worry about anything because their lives were a bag of rainbows growing up. Most survivors are not carefree; they carry the weight of the abuse with them. However, there are ways for survivors to cope.

  1. Get Counseling: Go to counseling and be honest about what you went though. Don’t hold back anything. Let all that childhood abuse out.
  2. Repeat Daily Affirmations: Retrain your brain concerning your own self-worth with daily affirmations. Tell yourself that you are a strong—that you are a good person who deserves to have a good life. This helps you overcome the rut of making bad decisions that sabotage happiness.
  3. Take Care of Yourself. Exercise, eat healthy, get fresh air. These things calm your mind and up the positive hormones in your brain. I’ve seen people who run, bike, or swim have great success in dealing with their abuse.
  4. Be Mindful of Your Actions: Be aware that you may have unconventional behavioral and decision-making patterns that cause you to “survive” relationships rather than grow them or thrive in them. Set clear relationship goals. Take cues from your partner concerning hurtful behaviors you may exhibit. Sometimes, it may be necessary to distance yourself from the other person.
  5. Be Hopeful and Optimistic: Imagine your perfect life with your perfect self and strive for that. If you can see yourself being better, healthier, and more secure, you have a better chance of making it happen.
  6. Have Faith: Find your spiritual self. I’m not going to preach. However, many people find comfort in meditation and prayer.
  7. Work on Realistic Thought Patterns: Survivors tend to blame themselves when random things happen in life. What are you really responsible for? Are these horrible things happening only to you, or do they happen to everyone? Do not blame yourself for things that are out of your control. You do not deserve bad things to happen to you.

When you are a survivor, it can be tough to get through the day. Life is about living, trying new things, and finding what you love. Find something that makes you love life. That thing may be art, music, physical activity, family, or even pets. You deserve a good life without the shadow of abuse. Take any steps necessary to heal and become the best version of yourself.

How Should You Deal With Your Abuser?

For most abused children, the abuser is a parent or close relative. Needless to say, this creates a difficult family dynamic. The first thing I want to tell you is that you do not have to be around the abuser. As an adult, you can—and should—choose not to be around the person who tormented you. While their behavior may seem less invasive now that you're an adult, their actions may still be abusive, or at the very least, remind you of your past abuse.

One of the things abuser will do is deny the abuse. This denial is typical behavior. The problem is that it makes you question the abuse you experienced. Do not put up with people who do not own up to their actions. Sometimes, abusers will apologize. It is not uncommon for them to realize their mistakes and even become depressed themselves. Whatever happens, remember that it is never your fault.

While you should eventually learn to forgive your abuser, it should happen on your terms and in your time. You are not required to give your abuser an out or do anything to make them feel better. Letting go is about you realizing their behavior toward you and saying to yourself, "I am not going to let this ruin my life." Forgiveness is a cleansing process. Most abusers are not going to say sorry. You do not have to be around that person. Forgive in your own time. Take care of yourself.

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Experiencing Abuse Can Make You More Resilient

Studies are showing that people who grew up in abusive homes are more resilient than those who did not grow up in abusive homes. People who were abused as children have a practiced ability to assess dangerous situations and cope with the associated stresses (Ungar, M., 2015). Ungar also noted that these children had the advantage of being risk-takers in life. I can attest to the fact that risk-taking comes from the knowledge that life will never be as bad as it was when I was a child, so why not go for it? Strength comes from knowing the worst has already happened.

Survivors have the ability to overcome huge obstacles in the face of adversity. When a survivor is presented with a problem, they figure out the fastest way to solve the problem. This is because they were used to constantly calculating survival techniques when they were children. For some survivors, this ability to adapt to and overcome hardships creates a life pattern in which they look for obstacles to defeat.

But Resilience May Not Be Beneficial Socially

Survivors tend to look at life’s everyday problems as minuscule, but at the same time, the survivor may ignore their own issues because they are genuinely unfazed by the consequences of their actions. Survivors often have a difficult time taking constructive criticism—both personally and professionally. Critics are often met with initial reactions that are inappropriate for the situation. While neither of these things is life-threatening, it is something to keep in mind.

Abuse Is Not an Excuse

Over the years I've heard people on television and even in person who use their abuse as a crutch for their behavior. These people refuse to function appropriately in society and constantly bring up their abuse as justification for their actions—be it drug use or other crimes. Abuse is not an excuse to be careless. If anything, people who come from abuse should be striving to make the world a better place. Any person can come up with an excuse to be a horrible person. Regardless of what you have been through, your behavior is a choice. Choose wisely.

References

American Psychological Association. (8 Oct., 2014).Childhood Psychological Abuse as Harmful as Sexual or Physical Abuse.Child Abuse Statistics Childhelp.org

Cozolino, L. J. (2002). The Neuroscience Of Psychotherapy: Building and Rebuilding the Human Brain. New York, NY, US: W.W. Norton & Co.

Friedman, T. & Tin, N. (2007). Childhood Sexual Abuse and the Development of Schizophrenia. Postgrad Med J. 83(982): 507-508.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2018). About Childhood Trauma.

Streeck-Fischer, A. Van der Kolk, BA. (2000). Down will come baby, cradle and all: diagnostic and therapeutic implications of chronic trauma on child development. Aust. N Z J Psychiatry 34(6): 903-918.

Ungar, M. (2015). Practitioner Review: Diagnosing childhood resilience—a systemic approach to the diagnosis of adaptation in adverse social and physical ecologies. J Child Pychol Psychiatry 56(1): 14-17.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 MD Jackson MSIOP

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      • michelleonly3 profile imageAUTHOR

        MD Jackson MSIOP 

        9 months ago from Western United States

        Thank you Pamela.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        9 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I think this is such a powerful article. The path to some type of peaceful, fulfilling life is laid out very well. I grew up with a lot of disfunction but not really abuse.

        Child abuse seems to be worse today than ever. I wonder if it because so many people our single parents, and boyfriends may be the abusers. It is so sad for the children.

      • michelleonly3 profile imageAUTHOR

        MD Jackson MSIOP 

        9 months ago from Western United States

        Addison,

        Thank you for telling your story. I am glad that you are safe. No matter what, remember that you are a good person. I hope you get your day in court.

      • profile image

        Addisonthegamer 

        9 months ago

        This article not only understands what kids go through but I had gone through this in my past but it was hard to come out about because it took me four years to tell my school, yes it was hard to tell my teachers, principal and school officer. I had stayed with my aunt for a week. And when its a family member that did what i went through it was hard to trust but my mom doesn't know if you should remarry after my step-dad. Who is my sisters dad who still sees her dad i'm not sure if he should see my sister i don't want him to ,but how do I tell my mother this. I had been scared for weeks, after my mom left I felt so hopeless. I wanted to seek for help but didn't know what to do. I was so young it was after my teacher talked about abuse I knew what to do. I hate child abuse mainly sexual abuse has to be the worst I've ever been through I can't say there's worse. after the week of living with my aunt i lived with my real father. moved schools and stayed to my school work. And all kids shouldn't have to go through this. I can say I am safe and now it's better that I told my teacher. If I could have told my younger self what i could of said now I would say "Your going to get through this, just wait" If i would say that ever it would say it now. Some kids think that child abuse is uncommon when it's more common than they think. And now you could find it anywhere now. In your church, own home, school, anywhere. I always found my camp i go to every summer paradise, break away from life. And now I have a reason to look back and say "Hey that's me, I got him out of my life" And when I look back now i say "Hmm, I will win when and IF i have to go to court to get him in jail for good" and now i tell my self today "I am free, and alive"

      • michelleonly3 profile imageAUTHOR

        MD Jackson MSIOP 

        9 months ago from Western United States

        I think it's difficult for people to discuss. Thank you for your comment.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        9 months ago from UK

        This is a costly but helpful article. When I worked in childcare many years ago we had to go on child protection courses, to enable us to be able to recognize any signs of abuse that we might notice. This whole area has advanced so much in recent years. In the UK there have been some high profile cases of adults opening up about their experiences of abuse.

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