The Effects of Childhood Abuse and the Process of Recovery

The Effects of Childhood Abuse and the Process of Recovery

by Malcolm Underhill

effects of child abuseChild abuse statistics

Research on child abuse in the UK reveals shocking results. An estimated 1 in 20 children have been abused; over 23,000 sexual offences against children were recorded last year (source: NSPCC and ChildLine).

Childhood trauma and the forms of abuse

Child abuse is not limited to physical and sexual abuse. Emotional abuse and neglect can also create deep and lasting effects in childhood and throughout life.

Childhood abuse usually appears in one or more of the following forms:

Physical abuse

  • The use of unnecessary and excessive physical violence
  • Forcing a child to perform strenuous activity
  • Unpredictability in violent outbursts and using fear to control and intimidate

Sexual abuse

  • When a child is forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities
  • When a child is forced or persuaded to watch sexual activity of any nature including pornography
  • When a child is contacted online for the purposes of sexual gratification and grooming

Emotional abuse

  • Constant shaming and humiliating a child
  • Frequent yelling, threatening, or bullying.
  • Punishing a child by ignoring or rejecting a child, or withholding affection
  • Exposing the child to violence or the abuse of others


  • Failing to provide for a child’s basic needs, whether it be adequate food, clothing, hygiene, or supervision
  • Exposing a child to serious risk in unsupervised and dangerous situations

Effects and impact of childhood emotional, physical or sexual abuse

The impact of child abuse does not end when the abuse stops. Understanding the relationship between childhood abuse and current behaviour and health,  is the first step towards ‘recovery’.

Abuse in childhood can result in long-term effects throughout a victim’s life. These effects often result in physical and emotional issues such as:

Mental and Emotional
Research has found that abuse in childhood contributes to the likelihood of depression, anxiety disorders, addictions, personality disorders (Spila, Makara, Kozak, & Urbanska, 2008) eating disorders, sexual disorders and suicidal behaviour (Draper et al., 2007).

In a five year study of 528 trauma patients from American hospitals, conducted by Professor Bessel van Der Kolk, Harvard Medical School, a range of symptoms that correlated well with prolonged severe childhood sexual abuse was determined:

“… the inability to regulate emotions like rage and terror, along with intense suicidal feelings, somatic disorder, negative self-perception, poor relationships, chronic feelings of isolation, despair and hopelessness; and dissociation and amnesia.

The implications are that real-world childhood… trauma may be responsible for many psychopathologies usually considered to have endogenous origins, including various kinds of phobic, depressive, anxiety and eating disorders, not to mention borderline personality, antisocial personality and multiple personality disorder.”

Problems regulating emotions
Abused children often learn to repress emotion in order to deal with pain. This repression may progress into adulthood with survivors often struggling with unexplained anxiety, depression, or anger. They may also turn to alcohol or drugs to numb out the painful feelings and memories.

Abuse in child hood may also result in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -which continues into adulthood.  (PTSD) is a psychological condition that develops after a person has been harmed or exposed to danger, and they have been unable to protect themselves. It manifest as a constant state of anxiety and unease, and recurring flashbacks of the events, and / or avoidance of stimulation.

The inability to shut off a painful emotional response, could be a factor in abuse victims turning to alcohol or drugs.

Abuse survivors often struggle with self-esteem issues – based on the premise that they are damaged or inadequate. Sexual abuse survivors, in particular, experience feelings of guilt and shame. 

Lack of trust and relationship difficulties

Children who have been abused often find it difficult to trust adults. This can lead to difficulty maintaining relationships in adulthood, due to the fear of being controlled or abused. It can also lead to unhealthy relationships because the adult is not familiar with the nature of healthy interaction and boundaries. 

Physical (body)
Victims of physical abuse may have been injured by the abuse and require specialist support.

Adults with abuse histories also present with physical problems more frequently than those who have not experienced abuse (Draper et al., 2007).

A University of California (UCLA), in September 2013, studied  756 subjects to determine whether a relationship existed between child abuse and physical and mental health in adulthood.  Teresa Seeman, professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine and of epidemiology commented:

 “Our findings highlight the extent to which these early childhood experiences are associated with evidence of increased biological risks across nearly all of the body’s major regulatory systems.

If we only look at individual biological parameters such as blood pressure or cholesterol, we would miss the fact that the early childhood experiences are related to a much broader set of biological risk indicators — suggesting the range of health risks that may result from such adverse childhood exposures.”

Physical (Gene expression)

New research indicates that child abuse may also affect our genes.  The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that abused children (who develop PTSD) may experience a biologically different form of PTSD than victims who develop the condition as result of other types of trauma later in life.

Divya Mehta, corresponding author of the study and a postdoctoral student at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany, commented:

“In PTSD with a history of child abuse, we found a 12-fold higher [level] of epigenetic changes (refers to heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence)”.

The study highlights the need to create a unique pathway to treat PTSD patients which takes into account their childhood history.

Ms Mehta advises:

“This study implies that it is essential to take into account the trauma history of an individual. Individuals with the same diagnosis might need different treatments depending on their environmental endowments together with their genetic predispositions.”

Healing from the abuse

The effects of child abuse will vary between individuals, with some finding it easier to recover, while others go on to develop serious health concerns. Treatment should therefore be specific to an individual and their requirements.

Due to the complex nature of child abuse and the effects on physical and mental health, a comprehensive approach to treatment may be required which includes medical, mental health, and psychiatric professionals – experienced in supporting child abuse victims.

How to obtain compensation for the support and resources required to recover from child abuse and the long-term effects

Making a child abuse compensation claim against an abuser or the institution which engaged them may enable you to obtain justice for the wrong committed, as well as financial resources to take the steps toward recovery and healing.

Author Bio

effects of child abuseMalcolm Underhill is an expert on child abuse compensation claims. If you have been abused, our team of specialist qualified abuse lawyers can provide help and advice, seeking to help you beyond the law.   Our personal injury specialists take a compassionate and caring approach to all claims for abuse, acting for both children and adults. Our lawyers understand the issues and address these sensitively. For more information please contact Malcolm Underhill, Partner, IBB Solicitors on 01895 207972 or visit

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Support, Information and Guidance for adult victims of child abuse and their support networks.

4 Responses to The Effects of Childhood Abuse and the Process of Recovery

  1. AvatarHarper Kallins-Linney says:

    Are there any attorneys in the States? Specifically Western Florida who do what Mr. Underhill does or his specialty?

  2. AvatarRebecca Dangerfield says:

    What do I do if I suspect that my own mother who was sexually assaulted by her Dad, is sexually assaulting my young boys ages 14 and 10. I reported her when they were very little boys but social services basically laughed at me.

    • HAVOCAHAVOCA says:

      If you have grounds for your suspicions then you need to report her to the police, stop all access and if that isn’t possible make sure she is never alone with them until you are proved otherwise.

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