Abuse Effects

30 Long-Lasting Effects of Child Abuse in Adulthood

Effects of Child Abuse | Hopeful Panda

As an adult survivor of child abuse, I know the long-lasting effects child abuse can have on the child that may continue into adulthood, perhaps even the rest of their life.

I previously wrote a post on the effects of my childhood abuse and a post on the effects of narcissistic abuse.

Since this blog focuses on healing from childhood abuse, I decided to also write a post about the effects of child abuse in general.

Child abuse can cause devastating and long-lasting physical, behavioral, and psychological effects that remain till adulthood. And these effects can have lifelong or even intergenerational impacts.

Every individual who has experienced abuse responds differently to the trauma. However, most people, if not all, do come out affected one way or another whether they’re aware of it or not.

Whether you experienced physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse, I hope this post can help you understand how your childhood abuse may have contributed to the issues you might be facing in your present life.

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How Past Abuse Affects Your Current Life

How child abuse affected you might not affect someone else the same way and vice versa. However, certain factors might influence one’s response to trauma, such as:

  • Your age
  • Your developmental status
  • The type of abuse you experienced
  • How often, how long, and how severe the abuse was
  • The relationship between you and the abuser

Research found strong links between negative early life experiences and physical and psychological health. The effects of child abuse permeate one’s mind-body system.

In Childhood Disrupted, Nakazawa said, “What happens to the brain in childhood sets up the lifelong programming for this master operating system, governing all: body, brain, and mind.”

Even years after the abuse ends, victims still find themselves dealing with the long-term effects of the abuse they faced as a child. The effects can even span generations if the victim is unable to prevent the cycle from repeating with their own children.

Childhood trauma often leads to poor mental, emotional, and physical health in adulthood, which may often lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other psychiatric disorders.

On top of that, many victims of child abuse also struggle with weight, addiction, health, and/or relationship problems later in life.

For the rest of this post, I’ll discuss the physical, behavioral, and psychological effects of child abuse that remain in adulthood.

Before you continue, please note that everyone is different and everyone’s experience with child abuse is different. So how effects and symptoms are manifested in each individual will be different.

The Effects of Child Abuse in Adulthood

Effects of Childhood Abuse | Hopeful Panda

1. Developmental Delays & Disruptions

Child abuse may delay or disrupt brain development. This can cause impairments to the brain’s executive functions, working memory, self-control, and cognitive flexibility.

The changes in the brain due to abuse can lead to poor language and cognitive development, poor emotion regulation, indecisiveness, and memory issues.

And these issues may lead to learning disorders, poor attention span, poor academic and/or professional performance, and an inability to look at things from different perspectives.

Child abuse has also been associated with certain regions of the brain failing to form, function, or grow properly.

Brain RegionResponsible for
AmygdalaProcessing emotions
HippocampusLearning & memory
Orbitofrontal cortexDecision-making & emotional regulation
CerebellumMotor behavior & executive functions
Corpus callosumLeft and right brain communication & other processes

As you can see, one effect of child abuse can create a cluster of other effects that interconnect, leading to many other issues in later life.

2. Emotional Dysregulation & Mismanagement

Many survivors of child abuse have trouble identifying, managing, and appropriately expressing their feelings. They also tend to have trouble coping with stress.

Because of prior abuse, a stressor or obstacle that might otherwise be manageable for someone else may cause you to have a traumatic-stress reaction.

Related: How to Deal with Emotions in a Healthy Way

Other common effects of child abuse in adulthood are anger, chronic irritability, rage, and difficulties expressing them constructively.

Survivors often suppress their anger because they may feel like they have no right to feel that way. However, this suppression will eventually explode, thus creating issues in their emotional health and relationships.

Again, this one effect can create a cluster of other effects.

Without being able to process emotions appropriately, many individuals may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms and behaviors as a way to feel better.

3. PTSD and Complex PTSD

As mentioned before, every individual who has experienced abuse responds differently to the trauma. So not everyone who experienced child abuse will be traumatized.

However, post-traumatic stress disorder, complex PTSD, or some of their symptoms are not uncommon among those who experienced some form of childhood trauma.

PTSD, CPTSD, or their symptoms are related to many of the other effects of child abuse listed in this post. It can also lead to depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, substance use, or oppositional or defiant behaviors.

4. Depression

Adult survivors of abuse have a significantly greater risk for a major depressive episode. This may be caused by the severe or chronic stressors of the abuse that may alter the way your brain handles stressful events.

Therefore, this may leave you more vulnerable to depression when confronted with stress in your present life.

Even if a major depressive episode doesn’t occur, many survivors feel a frequent sense of emptiness and sadness or emotional numbness. Depression is also often comorbid with anxiety in child abuse victims.

Anxiety and related disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and phobias are prevalent among survivors of child abuse.

They are often associated with PTSD responses and cognitive distortions. But you can have these disorders without having PTSD or its symptoms.

Anxiety and related disorders may be due to a heightened fight-or-flight response and increased cortisol (stress hormones) levels caused by early abuse.

When you’re constantly stuck in dangerous situations or don’t know when you’re really safe, it’s normal for anxiety to develop. And if the trauma or abuse is severe enough, it can manifest into a mental disorder.

6. Alcohol & Substance Use

Adult survivors of child abuse, especially those with parents who engage in alcohol or substance use, have a higher risk of addiction and substance use disorders.

Engaging in alcohol and drug use is also a common coping mechanism many people may turn to as a way to escape or numb the pain they’re going through.

Related:

7. Eating Disorders

Eating, bingeing, and purging might have been used as coping strategies to numb or escape the pain brought forth by abuse. It’s also common for people, in general, to turn to food for comfort during times of stress.

So it may have been used by victims as a coping method or as a mechanism for maintaining some sort of control.

Research shows that people who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood report higher rates of eating disorders or symptoms. Eating disorders may also manifest if food was used as a tool to manipulate or abuse the child.

Related: How Your Upbringing Shaped Your Eating Habits & Ways to Move Forward

8. Physical Health Problems & Diseases

There is a direct link between physical abuse and physical health. However, abuse of any type can cause long-term physical consequences.

Childhood trauma has been linked to a higher risk for a wide range of long-term and/or future health problems.

People who have experienced child abuse report more physical ailments such as psychosomatic illnesses, stomachaches, headaches, and chronic pain.

Dr. Felitti, an expert on childhood trauma, said: “Time conceals. And human beings convert traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life.”

Some common health issues that are seen in adult survivors of child abuse are:

  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Malnutrition
  • Heart disease
  • Arthritis
  • Back problems
  • Functional limitations
  • Brain damage
  • Vision problems
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Bowel Disease
  • Migraine headaches
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Chronic Bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic pain specifically is one of the most commonly reported health issues by adult survivors of child abuse. This may occur because the flood of stress hormones after trauma sensitizes the body, which appears to lower the pain threshold, thus making sensations more painful.

9. Low Self-Esteem & Lack of Confidence

Many victims have developed low self-worth due to their abuse. You may struggle with self-loathe, self-doubt, negative self-talk, and a negative self-image.

And if you endured verbal abuse, you may also be extremely self-conscious and have overwhelming insecurities. This may also develop into social anxiety.

You may also often underestimate yourself, don’t give yourself credit when deserved, and downplay or dismiss achievements or qualities you have.

10. Guilt, Shame, & Self-Blame

A common effect of child abuse is that a part of you may believe that you caused or deserved the abuse you faced, even years after the abuse.

You may have carried this feeling of guilt and shame on your shoulders all this time.

But the abuse you faced is NOT your fault. Please refer to How to Accept that Childhood Abuse is NOT Your Fault to learn more.

11. Lack of a Sense of Self

Many individuals with abusive parents end up lacking a sense of self.

When someone, especially a child, is told over and over again that they’re not loved or that they’re a problem, eventually they’ll start to believe it and take it as their identity.

You might not know who you truly are or have trouble doing or saying what you want without turning to others for guidance or permission.

If you lack a sense of self, you may often:

  • Have trouble knowing who you are or what you want
  • Look for external validation rather than internal
  • Use the reactions of others to gauge how you feel or should feel
  • Have trouble establishing boundaries
  • Be selfless caretakers of others but not yourself
  • Have an increased risk of revictimization
  • Have difficulty asking others for help
  • Be an approval seeker and people-please
  • Have trouble building a social support network or have trouble accepting support

Related: 10 Steps on How to Find Yourself After Narcissistic Abuse – Guide

12. Sleeping Problems

People who have been through trauma likely struggle with sleep problems such as an altered sleep cycle, nightmares, sleep disturbances, hypervigilance, and insomnia.

You may struggle with falling asleep or sleeping well because of anxiety, disturbing thoughts, flashbacks, hypervigilance, or health problems and pain that stem from your childhood trauma.

Check out 100+ Tips on How to Sleep Better After Childhood Trauma to learn more.

13. Issues with Trust & Intimacy

Parents are supposed to love, care for, guide, and protect their children. This is the child’s first relationship in life and it’s supposed to prepare them for the rest of their life.

However, when your first relationship is with abusive parents, it can easily cause you to have trouble trusting or getting close to others.

Due to your fear of getting hurt or feeling like you don’t deserve affection or support, you may often shut people out or push them away.

Not only might you struggle with emotional intimacy, but you may also struggle with physical intimacy. You may feel uncomfortable with physical contact in general or intimate acts with a romantic partner due to past abuse.

14. Abandonment & Dependency Issues

As a survivor of child abuse, you may have abandonment and dependency issues.

You may be so terrified of abandonment that you’ll do anything you can to hold onto the relationship, even if it’s unhealthy or toxic.

The fear of abandonment may also cause you to become desperate for companionship, thus forming inauthentic and superficial relationships.

You may also be codependent in relationships because you may be searching for the parent and affection you missed out on growing up. Or you may bring your issues into your relationships and expect other people to fix them for you.

Also, if you went through child abuse, you may not know how to properly meet your own needs. Therefore, you could be too dependent in your relationships by expecting or continuously relying on the other person to meet your every need.

And these abandonment and dependency issues can create problems in your social, interpersonal, peer, and romantic relationships.

Related: How to Reparent Yourself

15. Interpersonal & Relationship Problems

Survivors of child abuse tend to have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships. Many are often isolated and/or less satisfied with their existing relationships.

Since your first and most significant relationship was with an abusive parent, it sets a precedent for future relationships.

On top of the abandonment and dependency issues mentioned before, your relationship with your parent may have influenced your ability to effectively communicate, trust others, set appropriate boundaries, make friends, and develop intimacy.

You may have trouble forming relationships because you have trouble opening up, getting comfortable, being yourself, and getting close to others.

On the flip side, you may have trouble keeping relationships because you might overshare or become too intrusive with others.

16. Triggers & Frequent Flashbacks

Flashbacks can be triggered by different stimuli. Some more common examples include experiencing current abuse, talking about your abuse, or learning about someone else’s abuse.

However, flashbacks can also be triggered by tactile or sensory stimuli associated with the abuse such as smells, tastes, textures, and sounds.

Objects, people, or places associated with the abuse may also be triggering.

Related: Emotional Triggers Stemming From Abusive Parents

17. Hypersensitivity to Criticism

People who went through child abuse, especially verbal abuse, may be hypersensitive to any form of criticism.

If you endured verbal abuse at a young age, you may experience emotional flashbacks whenever you’re criticized, even if it’s constructive. Things like tones, facial expressions, and mannerisms may also be triggering.

18. Feelings of Helplessness

As a victim of child abuse, you may have learned helplessness.

You were likely used to being powerless and helpless as a child. So now, when confronted with a difficult or stressful situation, you may feel like there’s nothing you can do about it.

The abuse you faced taught you that there’s no point in trying. It made you believe that you’re not in control of yourself or your life.

As a result, you may not try to change a stressful or difficult situation even if an opportunity is present because “nothing’s going to change anyway”.

19. Risk of Revictimization

Unfortunately, many abuse victims are at risk of revictimization, meaning that they’re likely to suffer abuse again at the hands of another person.

This may be because they are already vulnerable from their previous abuse, making them an easier target.

It could also be because they are drawn to the familiar, thus unconsciously forming relationships with other abusive people.

20. Hypervigilance & Fear

Due to past abuse, you may be highly fearful, hypervigilant, and incredibly defensive now.

You may overestimate danger and adversity in your current environment, feeling constantly on edge, ready to dodge the next danger.

Many individuals who went through child abuse also have a fearful approach to life. They may always worry about what might come next. And this uncertainty can create a lot of anxiety and stress, which further takes a toll on their health.

21. Avoidance & Dissociation

Avoidance is a common effect of child abuse because it’s often used as a coping mechanism. It is when someone changes their behavior to avoid thinking, feeling, or doing something difficult.

A type of avoidance is dissociation, which often first appears in childhood when it’s used as a way to escape abuse or pain.

However, it may continue into adulthood and occur whenever you’re faced with something stressful, difficult, or potentially traumatic.

Avoidance is an issue because the problem is not being dealt with; it’s only being postponed. This means that all the issues will eventually catch up, creating additional stress, anxiety, and other issues.

22. Social Withdrawal & Loneliness

Many abused individuals often feel unaccepted, stigmatized, isolated, or different from others. Because of this, they may tend to be socially withdrawn or alienated.

Childhood trauma is correlated with depression and anxiety in adulthood, which inhibits one’s ability to socialize effectively. Thus, it puts victims at a higher risk of suffering from loneliness.

Therefore, you may often feel lonely, even when you’re surrounded by people. You may feel like you have no real connections with anyone or that your past is keeping you from connecting with others.

23. People Pleasing

If you’re an adult survivor of child abuse, you may have trouble saying “no”. You may often feel obligated to agree or comply with others even to your own detriment.

Your parents might have only “loved” you when you did what they demanded. Or maybe obeying their every whim and need means avoiding punishment.

In the end, you may people-please as a way to earn others’ approval, validation, or affection. Or you may do it in fear of repercussions like how it was with your abusive parent.

24. Perfectionism

Some abuse victims struggle with perfectionism or overachieving. The impossible standards you set for yourself might’ve been programmed into you by the abuse you faced early on.

Maybe your parent constantly pointed out your every flaw, mistake, and failure. Maybe you were punished for falling short of perfection. Or maybe they only showed you any affection when you excelled at something.

So now, you may be an overachiever who can’t tolerate any flaws or mistakes. Just one mistake might cause you to feel like you’ve failed. You may also downplay or disregard your successes and achievements because it’s the bare minimum you expect from yourself.

Learn more: Perfectionism and Trauma: How Abusive Parents Raise Perfectionists

On the flip side of overachievement is self-sabotage. Some survivors may end up on one side or the other. But it’s also possible to end up on both depending on where you are in life or what the situation involves.

25. Self-Sabotaging Behavior

Individuals who went through child abuse may tend to self-sabotage as they continue into adulthood.

You may feel like you don’t deserve good things in your life or don’t believe you can accomplish anything.

Therefore, you may intentionally or unconsciously self-sabotage to reinforce the belief that you’re not good enough or not worthy. This is to fix the cognitive dissonance in your head to make sense of your abuse.

On the more extreme, abuse survivors may also engage in self-harming or mutilating behavior.

26. Unhealthy Sexual Practices

Studies suggest that abused or neglected children are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. This includes having a higher number of sexual partners, earlier initiation of sexual behavior, transactional sex, and unsafe sex.

These unhealthy sexual practices are another form of unhealthy coping mechanism. It increases one’s risk of STDs and unwanted pregnancies.

27. Sexual Problems

A common effect of child sexual abuse is sexual issues in adulthood, such as:

  • Sexual inhibition
  • Sexual promiscuity, such as the unhealthy sexual practices mentioned above
  • Flashbacks to abusive experiences during sexual contact
  • Inability to achieve orgasm
  • Pain or numbing during intimacy

However, these issues may also come up from people who went through other forms of abuse. For instance, someone who is extremely self-conscious or insecure may have some of these issues.

28. Scars or other permanent physical injuries

Physical child abuse may have caused scars or permanent injuries that time can’t heal.

You may have to live with a scar or injury that continues to impair your daily life because of the abuse you faced earlier on.

Severe neglect can also create permanent health issues that continue to affect your present life.

29. Violent, Delinquent, & Antisocial Behavior

Violent, aggressive, antisocial, or delinquent behavior is another common effect of child abuse.

According to research, children who experience abuse in the form of physical and emotional abuse are more likely to develop antisocial behavior as they grow up.

Many children misbehave and act out when experiencing abuse because they don’t know how to process their emotions and properly express them.

And when they never learn how to do that as they become older, that type of behavior continues, possibly leading to violent, criminal, and/or antisocial behavior in adulthood.

30. Risk of Becoming Abusive

Most children who experienced abuse don’t go on to abuse their own children. However, research suggests that they’re more likely to do so compared to children who were not abused.

This may happen because the child may have learned that that’s the appropriate way to parent. Or maybe because they don’t know any other way to properly parent.

To avoid carrying on the trauma through generations and passing it on to your children, it’s crucial for you to begin healing so you can break the cycle.

Please check out 20 Tips on How to Break the Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse to learn more. Although the post addresses breaking the cycle of narcissistic abuse, it also applies to abuse in general.

Effects of Childhood Abuse | Hopeful Panda

Conclusion

Abuse can do a lot of damage to an individual, especially when it started young when we’re more impressionable. It significantly affects who we are and how we feel.

The abuse you faced and all the false beliefs that were ingrained in you when you were a child likely became your reality. It created this pain inside you that you may try to avoid or ease using unhealthy coping mechanisms without realizing it.

These self-defeating behaviors and painful feelings may persist into adulthood regardless of how loved you are or how accomplished you may be.

The effects of child abuse shape the quality of your health and relationships. It also causes you to think, feel, and act a certain way. And how you think, feel, and act likely boils down to your attempt to earn the love and affection you missed out on growing up.

Even when you consciously try to navigate your current life, your mind and body are still working to solve the wounds of the past.

I bet all of this sounds discouraging and perhaps overwhelming. Please, take all the time you need to process this.

And once you’re ready, take that first step to begin healing.

Healing won’t be easy and will likely be a lifelong journey. But as you continue to heal, bit by bit, you’ll start noticing the positive changes in your life. Despite the ups and downs, you can still live a fulfilling life.

Resources

Professional Help and Support

Professional help or therapy is highly recommended for your healing process. Connect with a certified therapist. A therapist that specializes in abuse recovery can validate your experience and help you understand that you aren’t at fault.

They can also provide professional guidance on helping you build new coping skills, deal with existing mental health symptoms, and help you understand and process your abuse.

Books

These books discuss the effects of childhood abuse and trauma on the mind and body. Many of these books helped me understand how I ended up the way I did due to my past abuse.

You can sign up for a free trial of Kindle Unlimited to read some of these titles for free or at a discount. If you prefer audiobooks, you can sign up for a free trial with Audible and claim a title for free. It would be yours to keep even when you cancel.

See more resources

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Hi there, I’m Estee. Having grown up with an abusive mother, I know how isolating, frustrating, and hopeless everything could feel – back then as a child and even now as an adult.

I am always trying to better understand and manage the effects of the abuse I experienced. And this journey I’m on inspired me to create Hopeful Panda. Learn more here.

A lot of time and effort is put into this blog. If you enjoy my content or find it helpful, please consider making a donation or becoming a member. Your support helps me continue providing free content for all. Thank you!


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