Adult Survivors of Child Abuse


Have you ever thought about what befalls an abused child once they become an adult? Can they function well later in life? Is there healing in telling their stories? Child abuse is a problem that is all too common and real. Many women and men today are dealing with the long-term effects of having been abused as a child. These long-term outcomes can affect every aspect of the life of an individual and are even more damaging when the abuser is a relative or a friend. More often than not, adult survivors of child abuse suffer from health problems long after the end of exploitation. Child abuse is a traumatic experience for all the survivors, and adult victims experience various psychological and emotional symptoms. These symptoms can include post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, cognitive distortions, poor self-esteem, difficulty trusting others, sexual problems, and other social issues (Lassri et al., 2017). This paper seeks to answer the previously stated questions by researching credible articles. Besides, the paper discusses the long-term effects of child ill-treatment and ways of coping up with trauma caused by maltreatment.

Literature Review

In dealing with the dismay of maltreatment, adult survivors of sexual abuse utilize coping mechanisms. Protective denial is one such mechanism that entails repressing all or part of the violation. Besides, victims of maltreatment utilize dissociative mechanisms like becoming numb to distance themselves from physiological and psychological responses to the abuse. In order to recover from the problem or disorders, adult survivors should adopt positive coping habits, relinquish themselves as survivors and forgive themselves. The process of healing starts when the victim recognizes the abuse (Lassri et al., 2017). When psychotherapists are dealing with adult victims of child mistreatment, they should make a consideration of the feeling of security of the victim. Furthermore, therapists should consider professional and personal ramifications of disclosure of the survivor. It is evident that most of the victim-survivors of abuse are not able or are unwilling to disclose information pertaining to maltreatment (Gagnier & Collin-Vézina, 2016).

If the childhood maltreatment is severe, then it can cast a long shadow over one’s life influencing how individuals relate to other people. Families can be dysfunctional in other ways, even when not abusive. Such techniques include having a substance-abusing parent, mentally ill or chronologically depressed person. This paper seeks to discuss the various long-term effects of child abuse and how adult survivors can do to cope up with the challenge.

Types of Child Abuse

There are a wide variety of child abuse forms ranging from mild to severe forms. Abuse can take place within the family as well as with other individuals who are not members of the family. Even parents who are competent make mistakes, and more often than not, they have faced difficulties and challenges.

Child sexual harassment is one of the most highly studied forms of violence. This kind of harassment may include everything from fondling to anal, oral or vaginal penetration. Research has shown that the majority of the victims of abuse are female while the abusers are male (Ehrensaft et al., 2015).

Another type of child abuse is child physical abuse. Physical abuse ranges murder, torture to spanking that crosses the line. The group that is vulnerable to physical insult is children and more specifically is sibling abuse (Ehrensaft et al., 2015). Besides, parents may be neglectful and abusive towards their children, thus making the overall abuse experience severe.

Emotional and verbal abuse is another type of maltreatment. This includes and is not limited to constant comparisons between children or verbally insulting them. Most often, adult survivors recount how their parents made them feel responsible for the maltreatment that was imposed on them (Ehrensaft et al., 2015).

Other kinds of child abuse include neglect, prolonged parent illness, separation or death, the child witnessing domestic violence and parental substance abuse. These maltreatments during childhood have a significant impact on the adulthood life of the victims.

Long-Term Effects of Past Abuse

Long after the end of maltreatment, adult survivors of child abuse suffer mild or severe long-term effects (Eisikovits et al., 2017). The impact of childhood experience can continue well into adulthood though not every individual who suffers maltreatment shows the symptoms. At times, the experience of parenting children makes past experiences very vivid and brings back old memories. In most cases, children show functional coping habits during childhood, and they don’t become symptomatic as grown-ups. Mostly, the symptoms manifested by adult survivors are reasonable extensions of dysfunctional coping techniques that were developed in childhood. Such dysfunctional habits may assist in coping with abuses though they have adverse effects on adult functions (Eisikovits et al., 2017).

Cognitive Distortions

A person can view the world as a dangerous place if he or she has ever experienced abuse in childhood. One may overestimate danger and feel highly fearful in the present environment since they have been powerless in the past. According to a recent study by Eisikovits et al. (2017), mothers who were abused in the past had significantly more negative thoughts about their children as compared to those who were not physically or emotionally abused. Furthermore, cognitive distortions can impact what an adult thinks about his or her child. With these said, an adult can feel powerless to provide and protect the child since they underestimate their sense of self-worth and self-efficacy. In this case, the distortions can lead to emotional distress and thus raise the risk of depression (Eisikovits et al., 2017).

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Most of the grown-up survivors of severe emotional, physical or sexual maltreatment show various symptoms of PTSD. The warning signs of PTSD include lack of responsiveness or avoidance of present events, regular experiences of events through intrusive thoughts or nightmares and persistent or increased arousal such as poor concentration, sleep disturbance, and jumpiness. Sousa et al. (2017) noted that most of the adult survivors have PTSD symptoms even if they don’t meet the formal diagnostic criteria for PTSD (Waechter & Wekerle, 2014). Sousa et al. also suggested that more than half of the sexually harassed survivors have post-traumatic symptoms that include flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, as well as intrusive thoughts. As an adult, maltreatment during childhood may raise vulnerability to stress. Previously abusive experience may augment the danger of having reactions related to traumatic stress through things that occur to an individual during adulthood (Ehrensaft et al., 2015).

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Interpersonal Problems

Past abuse impacts adult relationships. Individuals who experienced childhood abuse may experience challenges in a tie with other people. Such issues can influence the relationship with members of the family, friends, partners and even children. Furthermore, the abuses in the past can impact individuals’ capability to make friends, trust others and have un-exploitative relationships (Cantón-Cortés et al., 2016). In most cases, abuse survivors may find it challenging to locate suitable support network to assist them in coping with parenting stresses since they are often less satisfied and isolated with their relationships than peoples who were not abused in their early stages of life.


Another long-term effect of child abuse is avoidance. Symptoms related to restraints include self-injurious behaviors, eating disorders, compulsive high-risk sexual actions and substance abuse (Cantón-Cortés et al., 2016). One kind of avoidance is dissociation that appears during childhood stages when a kid attempts to escape from maltreatment.

Impaired Sense of Self

In most cases, women who have experienced abuse during childhood have a weakened sense of self. With an impaired sense of self, a person can utilize the reactions of others to measure how one is feeling about a particular condition. Furthermore, a diminished sense of self can raise the danger of victimization, including domestic abuse and rape (Ehrensaft et al., 2015). Last but not least, an individual can have a challenge asking other people for assistance, taking advantage of the support that is available or gathering a support network.

Emotional Distress

The last class of the symptoms of child abuse is emotional distress that includes things like anger, depression, and anxiety. Anger comprises difficulties, chronic irritability, and rage in expressing anger constructively. Most survivors of child abuse may suppress anger to a degree of feeling that they do not have a right to be annoyed with their children, friends, co-workers or partners (Cantón-Cortés et al., 2016). According to research carried out by Cantón-Cortés et al. (2016), adult survivors have five times greater danger in their lifetime for a significant depressive risk when compared with mature individuals who have never been maltreated. On the other hand, the survivors are at a serious danger of experiencing panic, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and phobias disorders. Such related symptoms are mostly associated with cognitive distortions and PTSD responses.

What to Do to Cope Up With Past Abuse

Later in life, abused children tend to try to cope with life. Victims can employ various techniques so that they can function well in their later life. This means that there is healing in disclosing and telling their stories (Gagnier & Collin-Vézina, 2016). Past abuse influences every part of the life of the victim, but there is hope. The past does not have to rule the future since there is much that one can do to heal.

The first way to cope with past abuse is just forgetting about it. This strategy works only temporarily though it is useful. Examples of people who experienced horrible events are Holocaust survivors. They put their pasts behind them by just getting over the trauma and forgetting about it.

The second way is by setting some boundaries. As a kid, you may have others violating your limits. Adults have challenges in saying no to other people, including other adults, partner or children (Nguyen et al., 2017). Learning to set a clear limit has a significant influence on the quality of life of the survivor. Adult abuse victims are not able to place reasonable limits on the amount of energy and time that they offer to others since they often have a double portion.

The third way is seeking the support of other individuals who may have gone through similar experience. Even though the recovery process may take an extended period, it is helpful to get support from people who understand it and offers you the space to recover (Gagnier & Collin-Vézina, 2016). Seeking assistance is very significant for survivors who are withdrawn, irritable or have challenges in manipulating their anger. Most of the times, grown-up survivors do not have an idea of how to parent because their upbringing was challenging or full of abuses. In this case, such adults or parents should seek help from experts (Brazelton, 2015).

Furthermore, victims should be in a position to process their experiences. With these said, one can consider seeking professional therapy (Doyle & Magor-Blatch, 2017). This is one of the techniques that have stopped most people from abusing their kids. Sharing secrets with a person who you like and have a rapport with can be remarkably useful in the healing process. Rolbiecki et al. (2016) suggested that writing is the best way of processing traumatic events. In their research, the powerful healing influence of expressing emotions through writing is demonstrated. This means that an individual can put their traumatic pasts behind them if they put their experiences in writing for a particular period.

Another way to cope up is by visualizing the capacity for wellness. Childhood experience influences an individual’s adult life and what starts as a challenge can be turned into a strength. In research carried out by McMillen et al. (1995), adult survivors were reported to have eventually become sound and healthy, and their experiences changed their lives. The three discussed how abusive pasts made them more susceptible and responsive when it comes to the needs of other people. From this, we observe that most individuals were compelled to assist other people who were suffering from similar challenges.

Last but not least is a special consideration for a mother who is breastfeeding. Additional challenges are faced by adult victims of sexual and physical abuse when they are breastfeeding. Some extensive physical contact of breastfeeding may be uncomfortable for a woman. Such women should figure out the situations that make them feel uncomfortable while breastfeeding their children and try to make them better.


The paper discussed various long-term effects of child abuse, types of child mistreatment and how adult survivors can do to cope up with the challenge. Adult victims of child abuse face long-term effects during their adulthood. These long-term consequences can affect every phase of the life of an individual and can be even more easily said than done when the abuser is a relative or friend. Child abuse is a traumatic experience for the survivors who experience several psychological symptoms. As discussed above, the symptoms can include Post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, cognitive distortions, poor self-esteem, difficulty trusting others, sexual problems, and other social issues.

Furthermore, the reactions to past abuse are varying from one individual to the other. The experiences of some victims are severe, while others experience relatively mild reactions. However, there is hope for healing even when the exposure was critical. Life can be sound, and one can become strong in the broken places.



Brazelton, J. F. (2015). The secret storm: Exploring the disclosure process of African American women survivors of child sexual abuse across the life course. Traumatology, 21(3), 181-187. doi:10.1037/trm0000047

Cantón-Cortés, D., Cantón, J., & Cortés, M. R. (2016). Emotional security in the family system and psychological distress in female survivors of child sexual abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 51, 54-63. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.11.005

Doyle, K., & Magor-Blatch, L. E. (2017). “Even adults need to play”: Sandplay therapy with an adult survivor of childhood abuse. International Journal of Play Therapy, 26(1), 12-22. doi:10.1037/pla0000042

Ehrensaft, M. K., Knous-Westfall, H. M., Cohen, P., & Chen, H. (2015). How does child abuse history influence parenting of the next generation? Psychology of Violence, 5(1), 16-25. doi:10.1037/a0036080

Eisikovits, Z., Tener, D., & Lev-Wiesel, R. (2017). Adult women survivors of intrafamilial child sexual abuse and their current relationship with the abuser. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 87(3), 216-225. doi:10.1037/ort0000185

Gagnier, C., & Collin-Vézina, D. (2016). The disclosure experiences of male child sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 25(2), 221-241. doi:10.1080/10538712.2016.1124308

Lassri, D., Luyten, P., Fonagy, P., & Shahar, G. (2017). Undetected scars? Self-criticism, attachment, and romantic relationships among otherwise well-functioning childhood sexual abuse survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. doi:10.1037/tra0000271.

McMillen, C., Zuravin, S., & Rideout, G. (1995). Perceived benefit from child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 63(6), 1037-1043. doi:10.1037//0022-006x.63.6.1037

Nguyen, T. P., Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2017). Childhood abuse and later marital outcomes: Do partner characteristics moderate the association? Journal of Family Psychology, 31(1), 82-92. doi:10.1037/fam0000208

Rolbiecki, A., Anderson, K., Teti, M., & Albright, D. L. (2016). “Waiting for the cold to end”: Using photovoice as a narrative intervention for survivors of sexual assault. Traumatology, 22(4), 242-248. doi:10.1037/trm0000087

Sousa, C., Mason, W. A., Herrenkohl, T. I., Prince, D., Herrenkohl, R. C., & Russo, M. J. (2017). Direct and indirect effects of child abuse and environmental stress: A lifecourse perspective on adversity and depressive symptoms. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. doi:10.1037/ort0000283

Waechter, R. L., & Wekerle, C. (2014). Promoting resilience among maltreated youth using meditation, yoga, tai chi and qigong: A scoping review of the literature. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 32(1), 17-31. doi:10.1007/s10560-014-0356-2