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Impacts of Childhood Violence and Abuse

A significant body of research has explored the long-term effects of childhood violence, which includes sexual abuse, on adult development. Individuals who experience abuse or trauma during childhood are at an increased risk for various mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and dissociation.

The lasting psychological damage caused by childhood trauma can manifest in various aspects of an individual’s life, affecting their relationships, emotional regulation and overall quality of life. Acknowledging and understanding these impacts is crucial for survivors, as well as those seeking to support them in their healing journey.

Working with individuals who have experienced childhood trauma

When working with individuals who have experienced childhood trauma, it is essential to help them understand how their past experiences have shaped their current worldview and patterns of behaviour. Put simply, developing healthy coping mechanisms and strategies for managing emotions and reactions is essential.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score is a tool that measures the cumulative impact of different types of childhood trauma. The original ACE study, conducted by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente, identified 10 categories of childhood trauma including physical and sexual abuse, neglect and witnessing violence in the home.

According to the ACE study, childhood violence (including physical abuse, sexual abuse and exposure to domestic violence) is one of the most common and damaging types of childhood trauma. It has a significant impact on a person’s overall ACE score, highlighting the need for targeted interventions and support to help individuals overcome the effects of these traumatic experiences.

Individuals with a high ACE score (4 or more) are at increased risk of developing a wide range of mental and physical health issues later in life, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, obesity, and chronic illness. Taking an Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz can help individuals to become more aware of their trauma’s potential impact on their lives and relationships.

Understanding the effects of childhood abuse is essential, as it can lead to difficulties in communication and trust within adult relationships. Those who have experienced trauma may struggle to express themselves openly and honestly, may have trust issues, or perhaps may exhibit an avoidance of conflict by being overly accommodating (people pleasing)

Childhood trauma can also impact someone’s ability to intimate and vulnerable in relationships. Affected individuals may find it challenging to form close connections, express their needs and feelings or regulate their emotions effectively.

If you are curious about you or your partners ACE score just search online for the Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz.

Additionally, a history of childhood trauma can result in difficulties with assertiveness and self-advocacy. Individuals may find it difficult to advocate for their own needs or to set boundaries, while others might overcompensate and become overly assertive or aggressive in specific situations.

Overall, recognising the lasting effects of childhood abuse is the first step in determining how survivors can begin to take responsibility for some of their more problematic reactions and behaviours.

Addressing these challenges is essential to alleviate stress and strain in adult relationships. Working with a professional to develop healthy communication and relationship skills can help individuals to overcome the lasting effects of childhood trauma and foster stronger, more fulfilling connections.

When a child experiences repeated punishment or harm from a parent or caregiver, it’s crucial to recognise that the child’s behaviour is not the root cause. The adult’s own issues and challenges pretty much always cause or at least contribute to the situation. Unfortunately, the child may internalise the belief that they are at fault, leading them to hide their true feelings and needs as a form of self-protection.

Understanding and reframing these beliefs can be an important step in the healing process. Encouraging individuals to challenge their self-shaming behaviours and to foster trust in the therapeutic process can help them overcome the fear and resistance associated with discussing their childhood trauma.

Overcoming internalised shame, which is a common barrier to seeking help, is particularly challenging for those who experienced childhood trauma, especially men. Admitting victimhood is difficult, and men may even claim responsibility or assert that they deliberately provoked the attacks. While this may appear paradoxical, it often stems from the child’s recognition of their powerlessness, leading them to initiate punishment as a means of regaining control.

Dispelling this misconception and helping individuals to reframe their beliefs is vital for breaking the cycle of self-blame. Encouraging people to examine their self-shaming behaviours and to foster trust in the therapeutic process can empower them to speak openly and honestly about their trauma without fear or distrust. By cultivating vulnerability and honesty, people can begin to understand that these qualities are signs of strength and resilience, rather than weakness.

This tendency to avoid discussing their experiences, characterised by phrases such as “I don’t want to talk about it”, can hinder healing and growth. It’s essential to help people recognise that acknowledging their past trauma and engaging in open, honest communication is a crucial step towards recovery.

In the context of a history of childhood abuse, individuals are more likely to be diagnosed as suffering with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).

It’s helpful to understand the origins of these terms, so here is a rundown of where it all started. Renowned physician and researcher Bessel Van de Kolk played a pivotal role in understanding and defining PTSD. Bessel wrote ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ which was on The New York Times bestsellers list for more than 245 weeks. While initially studying Vietnam War veterans, Van de Kolk recognised that the nature of trauma experienced by these veterans led to a complex set of psychological symptoms that he referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While Bessel Van de Kolk was instrumental in defining PTSD, it was Dr. Judith Herman of Harvard University who, in 1988, suggested that a new diagnosis was needed to encompass the unique symptoms associated with long-term trauma. She coined this as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).

CPTSD differs from PTSD, which typically stems from a single traumatic event such as a natural disaster or a violent attack. CPTSD, on the other hand, arises from sustained threats or repeated trauma, such as living with an abusive parent or enduring ongoing abuse at home. Think of it as the difference between being attacked by a bear once versus being forced to live with the bear—the latter being a more sustained and complex form of trauma.

In the case of CPTSD, the impact of trauma extends beyond specific triggering events, encompassing a broader range of issues related to self-esteem, emotional regulation and interpersonal relationships. Recognising and addressing CPTSD is crucial for those who have endured long-term traumatic situations, as it acknowledges the profound and multifaceted effects of their experiences.

Abuse and ADHD

Gabor Maté, a leading expert in trauma and addiction, has contributed significantly to the understanding of both conditions. His work challenges conventional views, suggesting that ADHD is not solely a neurological disorder, but also a response to environmental factors and trauma. Maté’s perspective highlights the intricate relationship between trauma, mental health and coping mechanisms, and offers new insights into addressing ADHD related issues within romantic relationships.

Abuse and Addiction.

In addition, Maté’s influential book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” explores the connection between trauma and addiction. He contends that addiction often serves as a way to avoid emotional pain or unresolved trauma, emphasising that “Addiction is not about the drug, it is about the pain.” This view sheds light on how addiction, when used as a coping mechanism, can profoundly and negatively impact romantic relationships.

Dr. Judith Herman agrees with this idea. She says, “Addiction is often a way of managing emotional pain that was not resolved in childhood.” This emphasises the long-term effects of trauma.

Well-respected addiction specialist Pia Mellody adds to this understanding by saying, “Addiction is always a substitute for emotional connection.” This statement is significant and reminds us how important healthy relationships and emotional intimacy are in overcoming addiction.

Key Relationship Challenges for Survivors of Childhood Abuse

  1. Communication challenges and trust issues: Those who have experienced abuse in childhood may struggle with open communication and find it difficult to develop trust in relationships.
  2. Intimacy and vulnerability: Forming close connections and demonstrating vulnerability may be challenging for survivors of childhood abuse.
  3. Assertiveness and boundary-setting: Self-advocacy and establishing healthy boundaries can be particularly difficult for individuals with a history of abuse in their upbringing.
  4. Emotional regulation and unhealthy coping mechanisms: Managing emotions can be a significant challenge, leading to addictive behaviours or other negative coping strategies.
  5. Conflict resolution and unhealthy behaviours: Survivors may find it challenging to navigate conflicts in a healthy manner and may instead resort to aggressive, passive, or avoidant behaviours.

A particularly confusing aspect of being in a relationship with a survivor of abuse is their tendency to swiftly escalate from a calm state to explosive anger, seemingly without warning. As Tracy, the long-suffering wife of Malcolm, expressed, “He goes from 0-100 in 3 seconds or less; it’s horrible.” These outbursts may occur during mundane conversations or even in public, leaving the survivor’s partner bewildered.

However, unbeknownst to Tracy, Malcolm’s perceived calmness is often a facade. Survivors of abuse often experience hypervigilance, resulting in a constant state of heightened alertness—in Malcolm’s case, an emotional baseline of 50 out of 100—making them susceptible to rapid emotional escalations.

This behaviour can be traced back to the strategies an individual developed to cope with their violent environment. They might have learned to suppress their emotions and needs, fearing that any expression could lead to physical or emotional harm. This learned belief can result in the perception that asserting oneself is a sign of weakness or may lead to negative consequences.

As a result, individuals from violent backgrounds may internalise their emotions until they reach a breaking point, causing an explosive outburst of frustration and anger. Whilst these outbursts can be distressing and confusing for those around them, it’s important to recognise that they stem from deep-seated survival strategies.

Compassion and understanding can help to create a safe space for individuals to begin the essential work exploring the underlying reasons for their emotional outbursts. Through this process, survivors can learn to develop healthier ways of communicating their needs and emotions, leading to improved relationships and overall well-being. As my teacher Terry Real says ‘No one is ever overreacting, they just might not be reacting to what is in front of them.’

A poignant description of the internal struggle faced by individuals with a history of trauma or adversity is the term “exploding doormat.” This metaphor captures the challenge of asserting needs and boundaries whilst grappling with low self-esteem. Fear of rejection or criticism can impede self-expression, turning them into “doormats” in relationships and letting others take advantage of them.

However, when they reach a breaking point, they may “explode” in a fit of frustration and anger, lashing out at those around them. This sudden, damaging outburst is uncharacteristic and can severely strain relationships. Recognising this pattern as a result of a profound struggle to balance personal needs with those of others is crucial.

By fostering a healthier sense of self-worth and understanding of personal boundaries, we can help individuals to break free from this destructive cycle and cultivate healthier relationships. Through empathy and support, it is possible to empower individuals to navigate their emotional landscapes constructively.

While understanding the origins of abusive behaviour is important, it does not justify or excuse it. Regardless of the past experiences that may have shaped these behaviours, there is no place for abuse in any relationship. The insights provided here grant you all the power and permission needed to take full responsibility for your actions and work towards healing.

For individuals who have experienced abuse in their childhood, healing requires a commitment to personal growth and change. It’s never too late to begin this journey and the best time to start is always now. By acknowledging and addressing these issues, you can break the cycle of abuse, cultivate healthier relationships, and lead a more fulfilling life. If I can do it so can you.