Child Abuse Prevention Month: Healing As An Adult Survivor

By Sparklle Rainne (They/Them)|Updated August 1, 2022

Content note: This article contains an extensive discussion of child abuse and other potentially sensitive topics. If you or someone you know needs help, please contact one of the following hotlines.

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: Call 1-800-422-4453

National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1-800-799-7233 or text "START" to 88788.

National Sexual Assault Hotline: Call 1-800-656-4673 or use the webchat option.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Since 1983, this recurring event has sought to raise awareness for and prevent childhood abuse. Child abuse can come in different forms, and the impacts of this abuse can be long-lasting for survivors. So, what can you learn about child abuse and its prevention? Furthermore, what can one do to support themselves heal as an adult survivor? Although these topics can be challenging to discuss, it's crucial to know that there is hope and that healing is possible. As we collectively observe National Child Abuse Prevention Month, it's time to open up the conversation.

It's Possible To Heal And Move Forward - A Therapist Can Help

About Child Abuse

Let's go over some of the facts about child abuse in the United States. According to the National Center for PTSD, child protective services (CPS) receives around three million reports per year. Of those reports, 65% indicate neglect, 18% indicate physical abuse, 10% indicate sexual abuse, and 7% indicate psychological abuse. Child abuse can have serious lasting impacts on adult survivors. This is not only possible but common. Research indicates that one-third of adult-onset psychiatric disorders are related to trauma that occurred in childhood.

Long-Term Effects Of Child Abuse On Adult Survivors

What are the exact ways child abuse might affect someone later in life? All areas of health are connected, including mental and physical health, and of course, your mental and physical health can affect other parts of life. With that in mind, some of the possible impacts of child abuse on adult survivors include but aren't limited to:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most commonly discussed potential impacts of virtually any trauma. Though not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, it is a common mental health condition. It's said that around 7-8% of the general population will experience PTSD.
  • Suicidal Ideation. A large body of research has found a link between suicidal ideation and suicide attempts* and various forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.
  • Physical Health Concerns. There's a high correlation between physical health concerns and childhood trauma, including child abuse. Those who have survived childhood trauma are statistically more likely to experience chronic pain, diabetes, liver disease, lung disease, cardiovascular disorders, and gastrointestinal distress or disorders, such as IBS and IBD. Interestingly, those who experienced physical or sexual abuse as a child are twice as likely to experience ulcerative colitis.
  • Anxiety And Depressive Disorders. Anxiety disorders and depression are more likely in those who have experienced child abuse.
  • Eating Disorders**. Child abuse can put people at a higher risk of eating disorders. One study found that participants who had experienced physical abuse as a child were twice as likely to develop eating disorder symptoms, whereas those who had experienced both physical and sexual abuse as a child were three times more likely to experience eating disorder symptoms and four times more likely to meet the criteria for an eating disorder. Another study looking at individuals living with eating disorders found that recovery rates were lower for those who had experienced physical or sexual abuse as a child, citing the need for specific treatment strategies for people within this group.
  • Personality Disorders. Trauma is a risk factor for the development of various personality disorders, including dissociative identity disorder (DID) and borderline personality disorder (BPD), both of which can be (and often are) linked to childhood abuse and other adverse experiences.
  • Survivors of child abuse can be more likely to be low-income or experience poverty. This can be due to mental or physical health conditions and concerns that lead to employment challenges. It is an example of how adverse childhood experiences can have somewhat of a "snowball effect," impacting many areas of a person's life.

*Please contact the National Suicide Prevention Helpline, available 24/7 in both English and Spanish, at 1-800-273-8255 if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation.

**Please contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder.

It's also not uncommon for those who have survived child abuse to experience other impacts, such as difficulty with self-esteem, trouble in interpersonal relationships, an increased risk of intimate partner violence, concerns related to intimacy, emotional repression or trouble expressing emotion, and more. With that being said, it is possible to heal, and if you have experienced childhood abuse in any form, you aren't alone. Preventing future occurrences of child abuse when possible is vital, and intervention can even save lives.

Preventing Child Abuse

Although it may not be possible to prevent every occurrence of child abuse, there are several things we can do, both as individuals and in our communities, to help prevent child abuse. Like those who work with kids and family members, some individuals may play an imperative role. Here are some possible steps to take:

  • Know The Signs. A child experiencing abuse may not want to be left alone with a particular individual or family member. Other possible signs can include nightmares, fear, phobias, anxiety, bedwetting, regression or regressive behaviors, depression, social withdrawal, missing school, or acting out. Note that some of these signs may also be due to other traumas and circumstances (i.e., grief). In the case of physical abuse, one may notice signs such as bruises and other injuries. In the case of neglect, one may notice signs such as matted hair. Keep in mind that the signs will be different for everyone, depending on the unique child, the type of abuse, and other circumstances.
  • Teach Kids To Speak Up. Children may not know that what they're experiencing is abnormal or may not feel they can speak up due to the abuse. Teach kids about what is and is not okay (i.e., it's not okay if an adult hits you). Learn about sexual abuse, contact, and non-contact abuse, to express that these aren't okay. Some kids don't speak up because they fear getting in trouble. Let them know that they can come to you.
  • Learn About How To Talk To Kids About Abuse. It can be tough to start the conversation, or you may not know how to discuss it clearly, and age-appropriate. Resources such as this tip sheet for talking to children and teens may be helpful:

The unfortunate truth is that a percentage of child abuse cases go unreported or unidentified. Survivors have a wide range of experiences regarding whether or not this was the case for them. It's important for kids who have experienced abuse to have support, safety, and stability after the fact, and adult survivors often strive for the same.

How To Heal As An Adult Survivor Of Child Abuse

Since everyone who experiences child abuse is different, the healing trajectory varies from person to person. Often, working on self-esteem, finding healthy coping skills, engaging in inner child work, and improving symptom management are goals for survivors. Someone may want to work to reduce depression symptoms, reduce PTSD symptoms like hypervigilance, or something else. Here are some things that may be advantageous for those seeking help:

  • Support Groups. Finding a community of some kind is often beneficial for survivors, whether that community is found through an online support group or one that meets face-to-face. Loved ones may also be important supporters in your healing process.
  • Individual Therapy. Trauma therapy can help you heal from the abuse itself and any of the concerns that pair with it, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Look for a trauma-informed therapist who offers face-to-face or remote sessions. Many modalities can help with trauma, so note that it's okay to switch if the first therapist you see isn't the right fit.
  • Group Therapy. Group therapy differs from individual therapy in that you meet with a group rather than seeing your therapist one-on-one. There are many different kinds of group therapy, and it is common for people to attend both group therapy and individual therapy. Types of group therapy that can help you form or develop healthy coping skills may be helpful.

It is also crucial to remember that it's never too late for healing. No matter how long ago your abuse took place, whether you did or did not get justice, and whether your abuse was or was not reported in the past, it's possible to reach out for support, and you deserve to get the help that you need. Stories from other survivors show that getting to a better place is possible, and there are resources and professionals out there who can help you get to where you want to be.

It's Possible To Heal And Move Forward - A Therapist Can Help

Online Therapy

Online therapy is a convenient option that can help individuals with a wide range of concerns. It's backed by research, and it allows you to connect with a professional from the comfort of your own home or anywhere else with a stable internet connection. When you use a platform like BetterHelp, services are often more affordable when compared to traditional in-person therapy. All that you have to do to get started with BetterHelp is sign up and fill out a quick questionnaire. Then, we will match you with a professional based on your answers. You can switch therapists at any point in time if you need to, and there are over 20,000 licensed, independent providers on the platform.

If you think that online therapy might be a good fit, sign up for BetterHelp or read our FAQs and therapist reviews to learn more.

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