As an institution devoted to increasing knowledge about intimacy and positively impact on creating healthy families, we offer this blog as a way to raise awareness to the different ways that abuse can impact on intimate and marital relationships, and how we as a community can better support each other toward that goal. 

Child abuse is an issue that is both serious, devastating and way too common. According to the World Health Organization, “one in 5 women and 1 in 13 men report having been sexually abused as a child aged 0-17 years.” Alongside the frequency of this crime, the effects of child abuse can range from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and can have a significant impact on a survivor’s overall well-being. If a loved one of yours is experiencing or has experienced the trauma of child abuse, you may be wondering how to navigate such a complex and deeply personal situation in a way that is productive. While healing looks different on everyone, your contribution to someone’s healing journey begins with understanding the gravity of their situation.

In this blog post, we will explore the impact of child abuse on mental health and ways to support survivors in their healing journey.

Defining Child Abuse

Child abuse can take many forms. It’s described by the Child Welfare Information Gateway as any action or inaction by a parent, caregiver, or adult that causes, intends to cause, or threatens to harm a child. Child abuse is a violation of a child’s human rights, and it can significantly impact not only their immediate physical and mental well-being, but their long term development as well. Below are some examples of the forms child abuse can take:

  • Physical abuse: The use of physical force to harm a child, such as hitting, kicking, shaking, etc.
  • Emotional abuse: This type of abuse utilizes verbal and/or nonverbal behavior that harms a child’s mental and emotional well-being. This can include humiliation, ignoring a child’s needs, intimidation, and belittling.
  • Sexual abuse: This involves any sexual activity with a child, including touching, exposing, and penetration.
  • Exploitation: The use of a child for personal or financial gain is the basis of exploitation. Labor and trafficking are common examples.
  • Neglect: Neglect is when a child is denied their basic needs. Food, water, shelter, proper care, and clothing are some examples.

In many cases, child abuse follows the survivor for life. It’s important to be extensive with your caution if you suspect child abuse is taking place, meaning you should take action sooner rather than later. Report suspicion of abuse to the appropriate authorities as soon as possible. 

The Impact of Child Abuse on Mental Health

Child abuse is a life-altering and widespread problem that affects millions of children each year. Child abuse can have a range of negative effects on a person’s mental health, including:

Anxiety and Depression: Survivors of child abuse often experience anxiety and depression, which can manifest as feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness.

PTSD: Child abuse survivors can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can cause them to experience flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety attacks.

Substance Abuse: Survivors of child abuse are at an increased risk of substance abuse as they may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the trauma they have experienced.

Difficulty Maintaining Relationships: For many, healthy and long-term bonds are difficult to form. This is typically due to a lack of trust and comfortability in abuse survivors.

Self-Harm: Those who have suffered from abuse are more likely to engage in self-harm behaviors, such as cutting, burning, or hitting themselves, as a way to cope with emotional pain.

Educational Difficulties: A history of child abuse can manifest in learning deficiencies. Child maltreatment early in life is said to nearly triple a kid’s likelihood of having academic problems (difficulty retaining information, focusing, and/or staying in school).

Suicidal Thoughts: Survivors of child abuse are at an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors due to the emotional pain and trauma they have experienced.

Ways to Support Survivors in Their Healing Journey

Survivors of child sexual abuse often experience feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation, which can make it especially difficult for them to seek help and support. That’s why your approach with a loved one is so important: It’s capable of breaking down those walls and providing a safe space for progress. With the right support and resources, survivors can begin their healing journey and overcome the effects of the abuse. Here are some key strategies:

1. Listen Respectfully

Survivors of child abuse often feel ashamed and may not want to talk about their experiences. It is important to listen to them without judgment, not pry or push them beyond their capacity, and let them know that they are not alone. Let them set the pace of the conversation.

2. Encourage Them to Seek Professional Help

If you’ve developed trust between you and your loved one, encourage survivors of child abuse to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor who specializes in trauma. Therapy can provide survivors with coping strategies and the right tools to help them heal.

3. Help Build a Support System

Feelings of isolation and a tendency to seclude is common in survivors. Helping them build a support system of family, friends, and support groups can provide them with a sense of community and safety. 

4. Validate Feelings

Intense and often self-deprecating feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness can occur. It’s important to validate a survivor’s feelings by letting them know that their experiences are legitimate and that they are not to blame for what happened to them. Validation alone can improve some struggling’s sense of self tenfold.

5. Encourage Self-Care

Child abuse survivors often struggle with self-care and routine. Especially if they aren’t ready to seek professional advice yet, encouragement to practice self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, and mindfulness can set them on course. These activities can help survivors feel more in control of their emotions and provide them with a sense of peace.

6. Research Legal Options

Millions of child abuse cases are filed every year. Perpetrators of child abuse should not get to continue living life as they normally would. There are consequences to their crimes, and ways for the survivor to recover damages for the emotional hardship incurred. Filing a civil claim in your state with a trusted lawyer can help compensate the survivor, and also bring awareness to advocating for yourself and your loved ones, in the hopes that more people feel comfortable to seek justice for their experiences.

Survivors of child abuse need support, understanding, and empathy. By listening without judgment, encouraging survivors to seek professional help, helping them build a support system, validating their feelings, encouraging self-care, and pursuing justice through the legal system, we can support survivors in their healing journey. It is important to remember that healing is a journey, and survivors of child abuse may need ongoing support and care.

Ally Rose is an experienced legal and child advocacy writer, and works closely with California child sexual abuse attorneys at Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, who represent victims of sexual misconduct all over the country, and help survivors hold abusers civilly liable for legal and financial responsibilities. Her articles aim to educate survivors on their recovery options, both emotionally and legally.