The way you are treated as a child can have lasting effects on you even in adulthood. That is why they say when you raise a child, you are raising the person that they will become. The experiences that you form in your childhood become the building blocks of your outlook on life and the perception you have of yourself. According to the United States National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, ‘experiences of traumatic events in childhood have been shown to have long-term consequences for health in adulthood.’
A traumatic event is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as an experience that threatens death or injury to themselves or other people and creates a feeling of fear, helplessness or horror. Some examples of traumatic events are physical abuse, sexual abuse witnessing violence or disaster and the sudden death of a loved one.
If you have experienced emotional abuse as a child, it is likely that you will relate to some of the following symptoms or behaviors. Often we suppress painful memories so we may not realize that we are acting out when it is caused by our repressed childhood trauma.
1. Bottled up anger: People who have experienced emotional abuse often don’t know how to cope with feelings of anger or sadness. They don’t know how to manage or release their emotions in a healthy way so they bottle them up until they overflow. A 2009 study that was published on PubMed found that child maltreatment ‘increases the risk of behavior problems, including internalizing (anxiety, depression) and externalizing (aggression, acting out) behavior.’
2. Don’t stand up for yourself: Those who have been emotionally abused as children have a difficult time standing up for themselves as adults. They are afraid to take action and often avoid conflict at all costs. Stress expert Bessel van der Kolk said: ‘if you’re in an orphanage for example, and you’re not touched or seen, whole parts of your brain barely develop; and so you become an adult who is out of it, who cannot connect with other people, who cannot feel a sense of self, a sense of pleasure.’ This may then lead to adults who either make poor decisions such as drug abuse, addictions, etc. or adults who are unable to find their own identity and preserve it.
3. People pleaser: If you were raised to be terrified that you may anger someone, you may grow up doing everything in your power to please everyone even at the expense of sacrificing your own needs or desires. According to stress expert, Bessel van der Kolk, he said: ‘in a healthy developmental environment, your brain gets to feel a sense of pleasure, engagement, and exploration. Your brain opens up to learn, to see things, to accumulate information, to form friendships,’ but in an unhealthy environment, those individuals will either fight for attention or continue to neglect their social lives.
4. Suffer from anxiety or depression: In at least four separate studies which have been published on PubMed, the studies found a correlation between childhood trauma and later psychological distress such as depression and anxiety. Because of all the bottled up emotions, people who have dealt with emotional abuse often suffer from anxiety and depression, sometimes without knowing the source.
5. Overly shy: Because people who’ve experienced this kind of abuse are used to silencing their voice so as to not displease authority, they often grow up finding it difficult to reach out to others and have trouble speaking to new people and forming new relationships. Childhood trauma, as mentioned earlier, has been linked to anxiety and behavioral disorders in adults and as a result, it is more likely that these adults will grow up without the ability to build meaningful relationships and will thus remain shy and timid.
6. Self-blame: Even when they are not at fault, those who have been through emotional abuse will constantly find themselves at fault and will always be afraid of making mistakes. This may prevent them from taking any risks or going after what they actually want. Kathleen Young, who is a doctor, wrote on her blog: ‘abuse begets shame, the felt sense that one is innately bad. It can take the form of believing that you are defective, broken, unlovable, unworthy, stupid, ugly, worthless. In the case of trauma survivors, it can also be expressed as blaming yourself for the abuse. In reality, it is exactly the reverse! Abuse creates this sense of being bad.’
7. Bully yourself: If you have experienced emotional abuse, you may find yourself using the same disparaging language that your abuser used against you. This means that even if they are no longer in your life, you pick up where they left off. Similar to the above point, some people who have been abused place the blame upon themselves and continue to make poor decisions whether it be in their education, career or social lives. Dr. Kathleen Young wrote: ‘many children are told directly and repeatedly that they are to blame. This may happen during the abuse and also at the time of reaching out to others for help. This then gets internalized. Some may replay those messages over and over in their minds as adults, without even recognizing the original source.’
8. Need for validation: If you have been abused, you constantly need to be told that you’re doing a good job. You can’t provide validation for yourself because you feel as if nothing you do is ever good enough, so you look for validation externally. According to Psych Central.com and Karyn Hall who has a Ph.D. in psychology: ‘validating yourself is like glue for fragmented parts of your identity. Validating yourself will help you accept and better understand yourself, which leads to a stronger identity and better skills at managing intense emotions.’
9. Overall Poor Health: A study conducted by Greenfield and Marks in 2009 found that children who reported psychological or physical abuse had worse health as an adult than those who did not experience these traumatic events. Over a 10 year period, ‘those who reported childhood psychological or physical victimization had worse health than those who did not and also experienced significantly more decline in health over a 10-year period in adulthood.’
10. Lower Education: In 2010, a study was conducted by Currie and Spatz Widom that highlighted a correlation between child abuse and neglect and their future economic well being as an adult. The authors of the study found that those who experienced trauma as a child had ‘lower educational and occupational attainment’ which then put them at a lower income level.
11. Future Poverty: In a 2009 study which looked at child maltreatment and their social and economic well being, it was derived that those who experienced ‘more than one type of childhood maltreatment are more likely to be unemployed in adulthood or to have had a job loss in their family that resulted in financial hardship.’
12. Weight Gain or Obesity: A study which was conducted by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) found that people who were able to successfully lose weight and keep it off were those individuals who did NOT experience trauma as a child. Vincent Felitti, one of the main authors of the study, found a correlation between those obese people who were able to successfully keep the weight off and who also did not experience childhood trauma.
13. Risk Assessment: In a study done by University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Seth Pollak, he found that kids who have experienced trauma and extreme stress as a child were unable to make good decisions later on in life. ‘Childhood trauma—due to circumstances like neglect or exposure to violence—created young adults fundamentally unable to correctly consider risk and make healthy life decisions—and no threat of punishment was likely to be effective in changing this deficit.’