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The Deleterious Effects of Child Abuse

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 6th 2006

For those who mistakenly believe that the damaging effects of child abuse are outgrown by childhood this information may come as a painful surprise. The fact is that the effects of child abuse last into adulthood and throughout one’s life. Its effects are often deleterious, meaning that the impact is often delayed and slow to develop but acute when they do occur. The consequence is that many adults who were abused during childhood experience its worst effects long after they have entered adulthood.

Males and females of all ages, ethnic groups and races come to the therapist’s office seeking help for depression, anxiety and marital problems. In many of these cases the spouse or significant other has accused the patient of being abusive to their children or to themselves. Even when there is no present issue of child abuse, the patients who come for treatment are wearing the scars of having been abused during their childhoods.

What Are the Symptoms of Child Abuse in Adulthood?

An interesting observation about adult survivors of child abuse is the fact that many see no connection between their present life problems and the abuse they suffered as children. In fact, some people deny that the extreme punishment they suffered was abusive. Finally, many of them are convinced that they deserved what their parents did to them.

In their adulthood, the symptoms experienced by these patients are similar to those of other people:

1. Low self-esteem.

2. Chronic, low level depression.

3. Generalized anxiety caused by no particular event in the present.

4. Panic attacks usually associated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

5. Social isolation due to a lack of friendships.

6. Conflicted and difficult marriages.

7. Dissociative disorders in which the survivor of child abuse goes into a “fugue” state in which they are unaware of what they are doing or where they have been. It is a defense against stress which, when it happens, brings the person back to the original childhood trauma.

8. Most of the other symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

Symptoms experienced mostly by those who were abused by children:

1. Lack of trust in other people. Sometimes this distrust can resemble paranoia.

2. Chronic feelings and thoughts of guilt about anything and everything that happens to them and to others.

3. A tendency to choose partners who continue the abusive behaviors they experienced during their childhood. Some of these people do become abusive but, most often they continue to re-experience abuse in their lives.

4. A fear that underneath, they are just like the abusive parent and that, therefore, they are inherently evil or are a “bad seed.”

5. These feelings and thoughts are tenacious and are resistant to anyone giving this person any kind of compliment.

6. Even when these patients learn that they were abused at the hands of one or both parents, there is a continued tendency to explain away parental abusive as having been deserved.


There are a number of important approaches to therapy for adults who are survivors of child abuse. Of course, anti depressant medication helps with feelings of depression and anxiety. However, medication alone cannot change learned patterns of thinking and behaving caused by mistreatment during childhood. Consequently, it is important to engage in ongoing psychotherapy in order to learn how to place these early traumatic events into context. In addition, it is important to learn new and healthier patterns of thinking that are more adaptive and helpful to the individual. To these ends there are two types of therapy that can be helpful: 1) Psychodynamic or Psychoanalytic Therapy, or 2) Cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Whatever type of psychotherapy is entered into, the choice of therapist is more important than the type of therapy, in this clinician’s opinion. It is important that the therapist be warm, accepting, interactive and empathetic to this type of patient. To this end, many people ask for a free consultation in order to determine whether or not they feel comfortable and can work with the therapist.

One of the authors of books about the harmful effects of child abuse is Alice Miller. Her classic book is entitled, Drama of the Gifted Child, explains how child abuse affects the living and thinking of these people. In addition, she has written many other worthwhile books on the subject.

We are interested in your comments and stories. Please send your comments, questions and experiences, using the link below the end of this article.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers in the Boulder, Colorado metro area (or Denver area people willing to drive) may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation and psychotherapy. Email him at for details.



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Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Stolen Life – Tom – Oct 29th 2009

The abuse that was adminitered to me started in the womb. I was brought into the world with abusive manipulative and neglectful parents who I thought hated me. My Dad who was mentally ill also passed this illness down to me. The abuse he dealt to me lasted for over twenty years. The thing that compounded the effect upon me was that they treated my brother and sister very well. I felt like I was a target. Needless to say this affected every aspect of my life in a devistating way And I am just begining to fathom the various implications of its negitive affect upon me and my life. I am 51 and don’t wish to give up. I am still waiting for my turn for help.

Wife of Adult Abused as Child – – Oct 23rd 2009

I don’t know where to start except to say that I am in so much pain I can hardly stand it. My husband was physically abused as a child and our relationship has been tumultuous from the start. My perspective is that it seems that he cannot be close to me. Though it sometimes appears as if he might want to be, he cannot. He pushes me away on almost a daily basis. He has told me he never wanted to be with me, never wanted to have a child with me, and never wanted to marry me. He has never taken these words back, and if you asked him today, he’d say this is true. I got him to go to therapy for a short time, but he quit saying he wanted a more “holistic” approach and then he found a guru on the internet and takes yoga retreats now. His approach now is that he is learning to not be attached to anything. Whenever I have tried to tell him how he hurts me, it is like pulling teeth to get him to admit it and now he just denies it all together saying “You make your own happiness, you are responsible for your own happiness,” etc. I just get nothing from him. Nothing. I got involved with him because I was at a very vulnerable point in my life and I really wanted a child. But I loved him so much and wanted to create a home and life where he could be happy and have a real family. I had no idea that he would not want to do that. 

If anyone can help me, I’d appreciate it. We are close to divorce, and it kills me to break up my family. I am suffering so very greatly. I cannot believe the amount of pain I have endured in this relationship. 

Thank you.

Have faith… there is hope. – – Oct 21st 2009

I am a child abuse survivor; and I am a striver. It took me 47 years to realize that the feelings of guilt, mistrust, aloofness, self-doubt, fear, anxiety (sometimes-panic), loneliness, despair, and IBS were actually PTSD. I spent my childhood, early adulthood-most of my life-battling between my internal feelings and societal norms (the archetypes), such as children are supposed to love their caring, nurturing mothers. My mother was mean, angry, unhappy, evil, probably a sociopath. She released a lot of her rage and anger with the world onto me. Her goal was to drain the good spirit from me-to break me. She began emotionally and physically abusing me as early as age 4. As early as age 6, I remember feeling like I hated her, and that what she was doing to me was wrong. The guilt I felt for feeling this way about her allowed me to believe that I deserved to be abused…  Underneath the love I shared with my husband of 24 years and my 4 children was my struggle with the hatred I felt for my mother. I finally sought therapy last year. After a year or so of therapy, here is how I feel: I believe it is okay and normal not to like a person that harms you-even if that person is a parent. I no longer feel guilty about not liking her and holding her accountable for her actions. I hold her accountable by doing what I would do to any one, who I feel is hurting me; I take myself out of their presence-their space, their life. I exercise my choice to surround myself with people who love me and who I love. I have learned to breathe in, the moments that I feel happy-I make myself aware that happy times occur often in my life. I recognize that although I have some sad moments, they don’t define the tone of my life. I am now working on taking a chance with trust-a simple giving into the belief that my decision making and intuition is strong and trustworthy. I have made a vow to myself that I will lead a fulfilling life. I know it is my choice to live whatever life I want to live-the same goes to each and every one of you. I read entries all the way back to 2008. They were very sad. Many of you say that you were pretending, faking life. Why did the good things in your lives have to be fake? Why don’t you see it as a part of your life-a good part? Why, does the painful part have to rule? I want everyone to know that there is hope. Remove dark energy from your life-believe that you have a right to feel love and happiness and choose that path. Stop allowing your abusers to continue their rath. Move through your pain…MOVE is a dynamic concept. MOVE through your pain and hurt, into the life you want ot have.

abuse survivor-16yrs – cate – Oct 13th 2009

Hey, to the people who are reading this. i was an abused child when i was first brought into the world. my mom let her boyfriend abuse me all the time, but i was saved from it. i’m currently living with guardians. I was abused more than once if my life by different people. when i was rescued and went to live with guardians i was being sexually abused. i was too scared to tell anyone,so it went on for about 8years. then, i finally talked to a friend and started to fight back. also, there was one other person. but, it didnt last because i fought. to this day i still blame myself some, but i have my friends to keep me going.    

                                         Sincerely, Cate


How bout a happy ending? – Lynze – Sep 22nd 2009

I’m 17 years old, adopted [thank God] into a great family, but there was a lot of abuse and neglect [alternately, i mean… of course not at the same time.] before i was adopted.  i’d have to walk around skid row washington with my baby sister trying to find food and avoid getting shot… always a nice plus 🙂 i saw someone get necklaced [a gang kill – they stack tiresd to the persons neck then set them on fire and run] and saw my two friends killed, one shot in the head and one got his ribs broken by his also abusive parents.  i’ve broken almost half the bones in my body, and nearly died twice of blood loss after one of my druggie moms boyfriends harassed me. That sounds kinda bad, but i was adopted into a wonderful family, and my sister was adopte into another good family.  i have a little brother adopted from a different situation, and i couldn’t possibly love him any more 🙂  i plan on going into a career in school counseling, to help other kids get help.  God bless all of you, you are so strong. 

Over-the-Rainbow – KATE – Sep 6th 2009

Dear Friends,

I myself, suffer from lingering effects of emotional and physical abuse as an child, my hope is to combat this plague with ACTION.  Getting involved in a support group or even better.. trying to, “make a difference just may be my best RX for the symptoms ofdepression, etc. from a life of abuse, (most at my un-knowing consent!).  Education, Action, and Compassion can be the most empowering defense for the Mental-Illness caused by abusive peoples.  Lets, “get it together”!  🙂

My sincere appreciation for all your stories,


PEACE/w God’s Blessings.

cat – ROb – Sep 6th 2009

There is empathy for you from many. You just don’t know those people. I understand where you are coming from. Hopefully you can find the right help for yourself. Just finding this site means you are doing something. You can get through this. It will not be short or easy.

survivor of all forms off child abuse – cat – Sep 5th 2009

I am a 22 woman and i survivor of all forms off child abuse “survivor” i laugh at the thought. i feel more like a worn down piece of flesh that is to tired to cry or scream any more, and it hurts continuesly all the time.the worst thing is i tell doctors, concellors and phcholagist that i feel like i could die from this endless pain, there is no empthy no concern for my truma… so whats the point. i would have been better of not being born.

Online community – Allan N. Schwartz, Phd – Aug 29th 2009

Hi Rob,

I have read with interest your comments and have come away with the thought that you might enjoy being part of our Online Support Community. We have many forums and one of them is for abuse although you can use any or all of them. It is free and your participation would be welcome. Why not join us there and participate?

Dr. Schwartz

abuse – Rob – Aug 28th 2009

I’d like people to know that the only reason why I figured out what my problem has been is because of therapy. I haven’t gone in about a year but I went for 3. It wasn’t cognitive, just regular talk. I may go back or find a cognitive one if I can’t resolve my issues here or on my own. It’s unfortunetaly nice to see that there are others like myself here. I want to throw out a bunch of symptoms/ reactions or ways of being that I have or had been just to see if anyone can relate. Once again my long story short was alot of violence from my father. He keeps coming back to the house after I tell my mother a bunch of times not to let him back. Reaction to the abuse was fear,weak, focus on fears, anxiety, ear of dying,avoiding hiding, how do people see me, having mom basically lead my life. I grow up and then hit a point one day where I have a panic atack after waking up. From that day on. All the reactions to abuse resurface. They are better than they first were when I started having them but thats because they’ve limited my life to where I’m comfortable. There’s way too many specific situations that i can name that one of these symptoms have arisen. Damn even playing ball the anxiety would start when batting. Now I know it’s because a combo of people looking at me and I’m facing someone 1 on 1. Speaking in front of people. Sunday night anxiety (school the next day ). I’ve been crying recently but I think it’s a good thing. I had a moment where I really felt like 7 yrs old again. Seems like my mind/bodys last gasp to keep me protecting myself in an abused life. I’m trying to tell myself it’s over. No more abused thinking. But I feel like who I am, what makes me,me is my reaction to abuse. Who am I besides that for real. I like sports/health excercise. I am very smart butwhat do I do with that after all these years (30) 23 of them in an abused zone 7 figuring out whats has been wrong and how to heal. Sorry for making a long post. I know it’s hard to read so much but I will read every response. Thanks you all for your time.

Hi again – Rob – Aug 28th 2009

On a good note I think I now have realized why I havn’t felt ” normal”. My whole life I thought how I lived because of abuse was normal. Then you step out of that life and you don’t fit in with the real “normal” life.

Abusing Father – ROb – Aug 28th 2009

During my childhood my father was very violent. Even though he did not hit me, I was still very afraid of his actions. At times I thought I was going to die. I did witness him hit my mother quite a few times. This went on for a long time as my mother accepted him back because she wanted a family. My reaction to his abuse was being scared, focusing on fear, hiding myself, feeling inadaquete thinking negatively etc. I wound up living a life based on this to be safe. I didn’t eben know at the time why I was living that way. Fast forward to I become an adult and leave that created life of mine. All of these reactions resurface. I also think bad things about whichever girl I am with and get angry at them. ( no hitting). Then I constantly think about my fear or that something is wrong. When I have to show myself, I can feel myself clouding up. I still don’t and never have felt comfortable looking myself in the mirror. Lips start to quiver when I have to talk to people. I have finally realized  what has happened but I still do not feel normal. I’m not sure if medication will work. I’m not sure who I really am or who I would’ve become in a normal situation. My mind needs to be retrained but is it possible?

seeking peace – faddy – Aug 25th 2009

i was abused sexually and physically as a child by family memembers and by my mothers ex husbands since the age of about 6 to 14. I could never understand how a mother could not hate one child so much and love another as my brother and sister who is older than me was not exposed to the abuse. my mother use remind me how I distroyd her life and i could never understand why. she could always talk about my sister or brothers father but never about mine and i always use to think she must have loved their father and hated mine or he must have done something really bad to her that she hated me so much.she would watch as her husband would beat me and she would just look at me and say you deserve it and walk away as he would just continue.I got married very young.All my life I pretended that all was fine no one ever new that I was abused as I  was very good at putting up a front a building up a wall around me. I was very popular at school , always the best at what I did but inside i was mess. I did not want the world to be able to see that I was being raped and look at me and think that I was weak and pathetic.because deep down I felt it was my fault that it was happening to me and that I deserved it and that I was good for nothing. When I got married i promist myself it was my turning point and that it was my chance to change my life for good.i never trusted anyone. the first year or so was very hard for me sexually but my husband very picked it up as i mentioned before i was good at pretending.i wanted to have kids of my own to love and care for but due to my early sexual abuse i had problems and had difficulty and a few miscariages and finally i had gave birth to a baby with complications. till today i have not disclosed my abused to anyone not even my husband.i managed to put the abused to bed for a few years untill 3years ago when my daughter now 19 started giving us teenage problems  and I started going through lots of stress and I started having nightmares and reliving all my abuse and the pain i felt then. i started going for counling recently as the last few months the memories and reliving of the attacks has just become so unbearable as if they are happening to me now and has put so much strain on my marriage as i cannot tell my husband what is really going on with me.i cannot tell him about the abuse as I know he will not be able to handle it and it will end our marriage and I will not cope with that too.i am finding it very difficult to trust my therapist even though i know she is only trying to help but I’m so scared of being hurt. does the hurt ever stop? does the pain ever stop?why is it so difficult just to trust?reading everyone story really gives me the strength to go i know i want to over come this and i know that the only one that can make me do it is me, just knowing that I am not alone at there really makes a hell of a difference as i was starting to feel like i was going crazy.i could not understand why i was feeling like this after all these years. how it could have an impact on me that i was starting to go mad and that i was letting this get to me somehow and i was doing this to myself.

suggestion for CRYSTAL – Joel – Jun 30th 2009

I want to leave a suggestion for CRYSTAL.  Try to get yourself some parenting classes in order to avoid abusing your children and read parent’s magazines and books on parenting.  Learn how to appropriately parent so that you do not repeat the abusive pattern.  You are to be commended for trying to help yourself.  Individual therapy probably would serve you well.  Good Luck!

Now about me.  I was emotionally abused by my father for all of growing up years, traumatized and threatened. He never really beat me but made me feel very afraid of him and other authority figures.  My mother used to slap me for trivial things.  Somehow I knew what they were doing to me was wrong and I spent a lot of time at my god parents’ home.  They were nice to me and made me feel like a person.

When I got grown, I was still ill at ease socially and somehow lacking in self esteem.  So I spent about 8 years in individual therapy on and off.  It helped me a lot.  I am now a therapist and I feel more confident than ever but now have to deal with siblings who were abused as children and all their problems.  At most times I feel good about myself, sometimes unsure, at times the Post Traumatic stuff from childhood comes back.  I have no children but they adore me.  Getting over the effects of childhood abuse has taken me nearly half a lifetime.  Thankfully, I can now defend myself from cruel people.  My parents are now dead.  I hated my father and put my mother on a pedestle.  Now I can see the harm she and my dad reeked on my siblings more than ever.  I hope they will get help too.

Cannon: Please join our Support Community – – May 15th 2009

Hi Cannon,

I want to really encourage you to join our Support Community and there is a hot link above. It is free and you can use any name and keep yourself anonymous. You will find lots of support there. Mark and myself host the site and are there to handle things.

It is never too late even with all the pain and abuse you suffered. I also want to encourage you to enter psychotherapy as a way to help yourself to heal.

Best of Luck, Dr. Schwartz

Is it too late – Cannon – May 14th 2009

I’m glad I stumbled upon this site; I started research into results of childhood turbulence (social and emotional) on adulthood, and also into what happens when the talents of a gifted child are not harnessed, nutured and directed and how that affects a person during adulthood.

My story is close to the lady’s story who is 53. I am 51. Outwardly I have always been attractive, articulate, outgoing, book smart. Inwardly I have doubted myself, been timid, quick to give up ground rather than hold it. Altough I am tall, and cannot help but stand out (maybe even was created to stand out) since a child I have always wanted to hide when in a crowd, even to this day I want to but I know I cannot. Now I just step up and out but it doesnt change how I feel and creates conflict on the inside because of this.

My father was abusive, physically, emotionally and verbally. Not only to his five kids but also verbally and emotionally to our mom too. He has withheld things from her, cheated on her so blatantly that 2 of his kids caught him (which he denied what they know they saw), he has threatened as long as any of us can remember to leave mom and divorce her. As a child I remember him saying like a mantra other times to his friends “its cheaper to keep her”. And I never knew the trauma it caused my sisters, in different ways, until the last few years. I myself tried to run away at 16, went wild when I first went away to school, only to drop out after two semesters. Yet my parents are still married. The abusive behaviors have toned down, but havent gone away. Sometimes I dont like dad at all and then I feel guilty, really guilty.  Ive tried to get mom to leave if only temporarily but she wont. Of five children, only 3 of us have been married. My marriage ended after 15 mos, my one sisters’ ended after 3or 4 years, and I have one brother who has been unhappily married for 22 yrs. One brother and one sister (in their mid/late 40s) have never been married. We are all professionals: a nurse, policeman, teacher, engineer, and business person. All thats on the surface. Emotional growth has been stunted and led to bad behaviors and manifestations in all of us. As the oldest if my life is any example I was hardest hit in areas I was least equipped to deal and process. I have very bad trust issues, and used to always feel like I’ve done something wrong all the time. Of course, Im old enough and have made enough mistakes to know theres a lot I have done wrong. I have done somethings right too.

My sisters and I agree that we all manifest certain behaviors and experiences due to our fathers way with us as children, although my sisters admit that I by far got the brunt of his ugly behaviors. Mom was pretty passive, the “good cop” while dad was dictatorial, and the disciplinarian. We always cowered whenever he was around. As a child I frequently was slapped in the face by my dad when he thought I did something wrong. Often I was slapped until my nose bled. Then he would hug me and say he is sorry (sounds familiar doesnt it). I still carry a sense of reproach, feeling Ive done something wrong, although as an adult Ive many experiences and feedback indicating the opposite. I suffer from low self esteem, sometimes lately inability to make decisions or from making bad decisions. Ive had several relationships over the years. I also had one stint where I did not date for 12 years because I was raising my daughter. I wanted to be a true example to her. I was not abusive to my daughter. She was married in 2004 and in Dec 2008 my first grandbaby was born. It amazes me the feelings that well up when I look at her or hold her. Good feelings and like a second opportunity to impart even more of all the best to my child’s child. I was acutely mindful of my dads behavior towards me when raising my own child who is now 27. My sister is oevrcompensating with her teens; I didnt have enough to, but God helped me find balance.

Now, I find myself in an abusive relationship with another “bookworm”. It isnt physical abuse, but I have been abused physically in a previous relationship, someone was right the scars do heal but the emotional aftermath still doesnt go away. It did not take rocket science for me, 20 yrs ago, to know that I chose a man 20 yrs my senior who whipped my tail just like daddy did — slapping, with belts, with words and controlling actions too.

It doesnt help that the man I am with now for 5.5 yrs (we live together part time and are the same age) is also verbally and emotionally abusive, bullying behaviors, with a very critical, controlling nature.  Yet he isnt this way all the time (yeah I know how that sounds – he shouldnt be that way any of the time). We have lived in two states together and have travelled together many times. In some ways he has greatly helped me, but mostly not in ways anyone would want to think of himself helping another. When I need the most support that he with holds it, or trivializes my feelings, insights, etc.  If I “put him on punishment” i.e. dont see or talk to him for a  few days or a week or a month then he pretends to change, i.e. his behavior does temporarily change for the better, but it doesnt last. Often he will berate me, but then he expects me to do the same for him. Like its fun to see who can verbally hit the hardest. I have trouble with that because, when I turn around and bully him, I HATE the way it makes me feel. Also, I have trouble with that because you dont treat someone you care about that way. I feel it changes my personality for the worse. I get depressed, and believe I am going through menopause which makes it all worse. For the past year or so, maybe two I have been in chronic low grade depression. I have some good high energy days, but then a trigger comes along and I’m taking another plunge. This fella I mention Im with now, ironcially when I am done he does what he can to bring me up, but it seems to me he only does that because he wants an abusive sparring partner. BTW he was the first man I dated after venturing back out into the dating pool after my daughter grew up, in fact the christmas before she got married. Daughter dear was telling me to ‘get a life’. LOL anyway sorry to go on so long I was crying as I read and as I’m typing too and compelled to tell my story. I’m glad I found this site. And I hope and pray that we all find strength and courage and resolve to do whats best for us and our kids and those we are involved with.

Where do I start? – crystal – May 6th 2009

 I was a victim of physical, emotional, and neglectful abuse growing up. I left my mother and whatever husband she was on to go live with my father when I was 16. It was the one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. i had to leave brothers and sisters, also being abused, that I had been raising since they were born. I hated myself for a long time. I was not allowed to speak with them for about 9 years. They were told I was dead. I found some of them a few years ago and being reunited was one of the most helpful experiences of my life. yet i still suffer. After leaving I personally went on a quest to improve my self esteem. It wasn’t very conventional, but it seemed to have worked. Then I had a child. I started school and became pregnant again. I am soon to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and hope to continue on to my PhD.(eventually). The problem is now I get stressed out and I feel like I’m losing my mind. I’m not always sure how to discipline my children, I don’t want to hit them, so I go in my room and feel crazy, leaving my boyfriend to deal with it. But then I feel like I’m neglecting them. Like I’m not properly doing my job. I don’t know what the proper way is . I’m scared that my kids feel it’s their fault that I hide, It’s not, but I never learned what to do in situations like this. my children and I are very close I just don’t know where to start to get help in the areas of discipline. I though

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