Surviving a Traumatic Childhood – The Lasting Impact of Child Abuse

For a certain number of people the old saying, spare the rod and spoil the child, becomes a rationalization for hitting and verbally abusing children. As with most things in this life, anything we do can have useful or harmful effects. Children do need parents who will teach, model and enforce proper forms of conduct so that they will grow into adults who function in appropriate ways in the world. However, there is a profoundly important boundary that is crossed between appropriate discipline and teaching, on the one hand, and outright physical and emotional abuse on the other hand. How do we know where that boundary exists?

Obvious Examples of Abuse:

  • Black and blue marks left on the child’s body as a result of punishment
  • Making statements to a child such as:
    • You are stupid!
    • I wish you were never born!
    • You are garbage, or worse!
    • You ruin my life!
    • You are bad, evil, etc!
  • Any kind of sexual molestation
  • Fractures and bruises that require medical attention and are a result of punishment

What Causes a Parent to be Abusive?

There are many factors that can account for the violent behavior of a parent toward a child.

  • Mental illness of the parent such as borderline personality disorder, rage disorder and psychosis.
  • Parental drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Parental history of being abused during childhood.
  • Impatience with childish behavior such as crankiness, noisiness and playfulness.
  • Adolescent parents lacking the maturity and skills to raise children.
  • Parental ignorance about the proper use of teaching and disciplining techniques.


One of the terrible features of child abuse is the tendency for people who know the parents to not believe the children if they complain. There have been cases where, even in the face of obvious marks and bruises, people refused to believe that the parents they knew could possibly be violent to their children. This is especially true where parents appear in public as happy and extroverted people with whom it is pleasant to socialize. It is this factor that makes it difficult for professionals, such as teachers, to report suspected child abuse if they know the parents. The tendency, all too often, is to give the parents the benefit of the doubt.

The Lasting Impact of Child Abuse

Beyond the obvious fact that physically abusing a child can lead to death, there are terrible consequences for the rest of his or her life. Case studies and research show that adults abused as children, become people with low self-esteem, depression, insecurity and fear. One psychiatrist described the result as “soul murder”.

It is an interesting fact that children tend to blame themselves for being brutalized. Alice Miller, in her many books about the abused child, points out that even as adults, these people believe they were deserving of the abuse. In many cases, these people continue to believe that there is nothing good about them. It is not unusual for the survivor of abuse to fear they are as cruel, violent and heartless as the abusing parent was. Therefore, they avoid intimacy and lead lonely lives, fearful that if they get too close to other people, they will either be hurt or will cause harm.

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Divorce & its impact on A Child – A Kind of Abuse

Drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse: what do they have in common? They each form part of a viscous cycle of family dysfunction that is passed from one generation to the next. Countless amounts of research in recent years demonstrate the correlation between child abuse and later serious problems during adolescence and adulthood. For example, the victims of child abuse are more likely to become depressed and suicidal during their teenage years. Along with depression comes the increased risk that disaffected youth will turn to all types of drugs and heavy alcohol abuse. These young people drop out of high school and never complete their education. Most significant of all is the fact that they are most likely to abuse their spouses and their own children after they marry.

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In many cases divorce forms part of this destructive cycle. The statistics on marriage in the United States are discouraging. More than fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. Divorce is an emotionally traumatic event that contributes to feelings of despair, depression and hopelessness. However, the toll taken on the emotional well being of the children of divorced families is incalculable. Very often, it is not the divorce that is destructive to children as much as the open conflict and hostility that preceded the divorce. Many studies have demonstrated the fact that children who witness parents being abusive to one another are likely to become angry and violent with their peers. In addition, when children experience conflict at home, it becomes more difficult for them to concentrate on school and master the academic skills necessary for success later in life. Such children attend school filled with anxiety and worry about their parents. These young people become adults who need psychotherapy because of the toll taken on their self-esteem and their ability to function in the world. Frequently, these are the people who turn to alcohol and drug abuse to help them cope with their depression and self-hatred.

During the summer of 1999, the National Center on Drug Addiction and Drug Abuse published the findings of studies it had done on the American family and the problem of drug and alcohol abuse. The study found a direct relationship between parental behavior towards children and the likelihood of the children turning to drugs, alcohol and tobacco. In families where children did not have a good relationship with their parents, there was an increased risk for substance use during adolescence. In two parent families, the interest and involvement of the father was of central importance to the children. In fact, children coming from single parent families in which there was a good relationship with an involved parent, had fewer problems than those coming from two parent, conflicted households. It was noted in the study that sharing dinnertime as a family each evening helped provided a sense of family unity, which mitigated against the possibility of substance abuse. Regular attendance at religious services as a family was also important.

Divorce – The Aftermath

If a marriage can be bad, a divorce can be worse. There are dreadful consequences faced by husbands, wives and children after divorce takes place. In the passion and turmoil of the break-up of the marriage, people are often not thinking about the price everyone will pay. This is not meant to suggest that people should stay in marriages in which there is violence and humiliation. There is no question that in most cases divorce is the only alternative due to the level of destructiveness that is involved. Nevertheless, divorce does not occur without consequences for everyone involved. The greatest consequence occurs to the children who, most than not, believe they are the cause of the divorce.

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Judith Wallerstein, in her book, Second Chances, (1989) points out many of the penalties faced by people who are divorced. Among these are such things as economic disaster and a lowered standard of living, raising children alone without the help and support of the other parent, emotional turmoil and heartbreak, having to maintain a career while raising the children and maintaining the household and the complete disruption of the family. Wallerstein points out that, rather than forgetting about the divorce years later, children have clear memories of the divorce long after they become adults. In fact, many people who lived through divorce as children are reluctant to marry and opt for living together instead. The reason for this is the wish to avoid a divorce. However, intimates living together outside of marriage can break up just as well as those who are married.

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The economic consequences of divorce seem to fall especially heavily on women and children. Since mothers most often get custody of the children, it is difficult to provide for the school and daily needs of the single parent family without going to work. Even then, one salary is not enough to make ends meet. Although fathers provide child support, this is not in any way equal to the family income that existed prior to divorce. This is not to suggest that it is easier for the former husband. Reduced income resulting from paying child support, paying for a new and separate household and having only one income means that material well being is greatly reduced.

None of the economic issues really address the emotional and psychological fines that are paid by everyone. Former lovers and spouses often experience a long period of depression. This depression stems from men and women feeling like failures because the marriage ended. There are also fears experienced by each that the other will fare better and will find another partner and live a better life. It is not difficult for feelings of envy to set in along with loss and depression. Of course, there are often inflamed emotions of anger, rage and hatred.

If the divorce and the events leading up to the divorce were acrimonious, anger can become so exaggerated that one or both former partners wish to seek revenge. Tragically, the children become the means by which furious parents exact revenge. There are a variety of means by which this can happen. Parents with custody can refuse to cooperate with the visiting rights to see the children. In some cases, parents poison the minds of the children in order to turn them against the absent parent. Quarreling parents put the children in the middle of the conflict, causing the child to feel at fault if they decide to anything the other parent is asking. Perhaps the worst type of revenge that can be exacted is for the non custodial parent to vanish from the lives of the children. It is usually fathers who seem disappear. Studies show that custodial parents who interfere with the relationship between the child and the other parent results in all kinds of adjustment problems later in life.

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Even when a divorce is not acrimonious and the two adults separate in ways that are both amicable for one another and protective for the children, youngsters experience a lot of turmoil. It is very typical for children to believe that they are responsible for their parents divorcing. It is the natural egocentric way of thinking characterized by all youngsters that leads them to believe they are at fault. It is also natural for children to want to keep their parents together, or reunite them long after the divorce.

Wrapping it Up

Now we are not suggesting that parents remain together for the sake of their children as it will only make matters worse. Rather, it is vitally important for divorcing parents to protect their children by not using them as weapons with which to punish one another and by doing all they can to be available and reassuring of their children. The youngsters need to be told, repeatedly, that they are not the cause of the divorce. Also, children need to be made aware that they can see and be in contact with the non-custodial parent as much and as frequently as they wish. All of this is under the assumption that the non custodial parent was not abusive to the children.

It is important for parents to be aware of symptoms of stress in their children during and after divorce. Some of these symptoms may be: 1.lowering of school grades, 2.sudden poor behavior at school, 3.nightmares, 4.loss of appetite, 5.irritability at home and school.

The fact is that the alarming rate of marital divorce and family dysfunction in the form of battering, arguing and conflict has devastating consequences for the children emerging from those families. According to the First Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health published in 1999, one out of five American adults experience emotional problems in any one-year. Noting that modern neuro-science has proven that there is no difference between mind and body, the report concluded that nurture as much as genetics determines how we emerge as adults. In other words, it would be a tragic mistake to dismiss the importance of family life on child development.

The Surgeon General’s report also pointed out that the majority of adults who are going through difficult times in their lives and in the lives of their families do not turn to the mental health community for assistance. This is despite the fact that there is more that can be done to treat emotional problems today than at any other time. This ability to help people is a result of enormous progress that has been made in understanding how brain and neurological system function.

It is frustrating to know that therapy is available and that the cycle of suffering can be ended but that people are not taking advantage of that help. One reason given for the fact that most people do not turn to the mental health community is that there is still a stigma attached to seeking psychotherapy.

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