Childhood Abuse: When the past is present


Child abuse can take the form of any act of emotional, physical or sexual abuse perpetrated against a child. Child abuse can also take the form of neglect: ignoring the child’s emotional and or physical needs. Child abuse can take place inside and outside of the family.


Sometimes it is very difficult to be sure whether or not you actually were abused as a child. Abuse can be a loaded word. Many of my client’s discount their own experiences because someone else may have “had it worse”. What matters is how your experiences impacted you.

Some examples of childhood abuse follow to help you think about your own experience. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Emotional Abuse:

Physical Abuse:

  • Hitting with hands or objects
  • Kicking, Biting, Burning
  • Not letting a child eat, drink, or use the bathroom

Sexual Abuse:

  • Any form of physical sexual contact with a child
  • Can include non-contact abuse, such as exposure, voyeurism.
  • Trafficking and child pornography.
  • Exposure to adult sexuality and violations of privacy.
  • Abuse by peers or siblings also occurs


There may be clues in your present day life as an adult that can help you identify childhood abuse. Childhood trauma can cause the disruption of basic developmental tasks such as self-soothing, seeing the world as a safe place, trusting others, organized thinking for decision-making and avoiding exploitation.

Disruption of these tasks in childhood can in turn result in attempts to cope with what has transpired, which may be interpreted in the mental health system as “symptoms.” Unfortunately, the very survival tactics used to cope with the abuse can later get in the way of productive and satisfying adult lives.

The following are examples of how childhood abuse might impact you as an adult. Again, this list is not all-inclusive.

  • Relationship Problems–difficulty with communication, trouble setting healthy boundaries, repeating unhealthy patterns in choices of partners and difficulty with intimacy.
  • Social Alienation–feeling different from others, not accepted, stigmatized, social phobia.
  • Low Self-Esteem–self-doubt, self-blame, shame, feeling like an imposter.
  • Difficulty with Feelings–trouble in recognizing, managing and appropriately expressing feelings, depression, panic attacks, anxiety
  • Body issues–disconnection/dissociation from body, distorted body image, coping mechanisms that can harm the body (self-injury, eating disorders, abuse of alcohol and drugs), see sexual problems.
  • Sexual Problems–sexual inhibition or compulsive sexual behavior, flashbacks to abusive experiences during sexual contact, inability to achieve orgasm, pain or numbing during intimacy.
  • Physical problems— migraines, chronic pain, arthritis, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Other Symptoms of Trauma–feelings of fear, agitation, amnesia for events or parts of your life, numbing of bodily areas, nightmares, dissociation.

The impact of childhood abuse does not end when the abuse stops. If you were abused as a child, the long-term effects can interfere with your life today. The good news is that you can heal. It is possible to live a full and authentic life. You can experience wholeness, satisfaction in your  work and healthy love and trust in your relationships. Understanding the connection between your abuse and your current behavior is the first step towards healing.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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7 Responses to Childhood Abuse: When the past is present

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  2. Tears says:

    “The good news is that you can heal. It is possible to live a full and authentic life. You can experience wholeness, satisfaction in your work and healthy love and trust in your relationships. Understanding the connection between your abuse and your current behavior is the first step towards healing.”

    Sometimes I feel like there is no healing for me; everyone else qualifies but me. I have been working on this for over 15 years! Where is my peace? Where is my acceptance? I understand the connection between my past and my present. What is the next step?

    I try to parent myself, go back and give myself the things I missed in hildhood but….

    Where is my peace?

    I feel like damaged goods…. Damaged for good.

    • kyoungpsyd says:


      I really really hear your pain and despair. I am not going to offer you platitudes. I mostly want you to know I am a witness to what you are sharing. I get it.

      That last part sounds like some of those old beliefs you internalized, that you mentioned in another post? Maybe try reminding yourself that they are just that, and not fact.

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  6. Sally says:

    Thanks for your generosity and exceptional website. Trauma survivors and those with DID often have “earning” disabilities. Money became so confused and distorted, with issues of worthlessness, as a substitution for love, and guilt money, etc. Learned helplessness also factors in, and a reversed punishment of parents who placed the value of money before the love of their children.

    Trying to heal this kind of damage seems nearly impossible, other than to keep working on learning to love ourselves.

    Very little is written about this, though there are books on abundance, positive affirmations, manifestation of money, etc. There is also ‘Underearners Anonymous.’ In thirty years I haven’t found one thing that had helped, not even earning my BA recently, and in my 50s. There is no help in our society for people who are truly in need financially, gifted people who could have accomplished great things earlier in life if someone had believed in them somewhere along the line. How nice it would be if there really was such a thing as a God, a Divine Mind, that delivered, that, instead of leaving us to drown in quicksand, truly showed mercy. That would be Heaven. It seems even this God makes us feel badly about ourselves, or so organized religion would have it.

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