What to Know About Being an Adult Survivor of Child Abuse

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 09, 2021
3 min read

Abuse can cause intense negative emotions, low self-esteem, and other long-term problems. If you are an adult who was abused as a child, it’s important to know that you can recover. There are ways to get help. Here’s what you need to know. 

Child abuse happens when someone exploits, harms, or neglects a child under age 18. Abuse can be emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual. It can also happen when the emotional and physical needs of a child are ignored. 

Child maltreatment causes physical effects to the body. While your body can heal, the stress of abuse on your body can cause long-term effects. ‌

If you’ve developed a chronic health problem, you’re not alone. Studies show child abuse leads to a higher chance of getting a long-term health problem as an adult, including:

  • Migraines
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Vision problems
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Bowel disease
  • Heart attack
  • Back problems
  • High blood pressure 

Abuse can lead to emotional and behavioral effects. This happens because toxic stress in childhood disrupts your brain growth and changes its structures. Toxic stress is what happens when your stress response is strongly or continually activated, which happens during abuse and neglect. ‌

These changes to your brain can lead to long-term emotional effects of child abuse. You might experience:

Severe mistreatment leads to fear, distrust, and isolation, and this can affect you into your adult years. As a child, you learned survival tactics that helped you cope, but those techniques can interfere with your life as an adult. ‌

You might find you have trouble trusting others and keeping loving relationships. You might feel angry, or you might fight and blame others a lot. It’s also common to have trouble with intimacy and communication.  You might also: 

  • Have trouble setting boundaries
  • Put up emotional walls
  • Be defensive
  • Seek approval from others

Child abuse survivors are more likely to engage in risky behaviors because of toxic stress. These behaviors can include:

Some people also develop troubled eating and food behaviors, leading to an eating disorder.

The healing process can be painful and hard, but it is possible to recover. It’s difficult to heal on your own, though, so it’s important to find support. ‌

Since abuse can make it hard for you to trust others, it's possible that you’ve never talked to anyone about your childhood. Talking about it can really help, though. Make sure to choose someone you feel loved and supported by to share your experience with, or look for a support group of others who understand your experience.‌

A licensed therapist can guide you through your feelings and your memories. It’s common for children to block out memories of painful events. It’s not necessary to remember anything that happened to you in order to heal, but you might have memories come back, especially during recovery. ‌

You might also have flashbacks, which are intense memories that feel like you’re re-experiencing it in the present moment. These can be debilitating. A therapist can help you learn healthy ways to cope, new ways to communicate, and how to recognize what you need. ‌

If you think you have a health problem like depression or anxiety, make sure to talk to your doctor about treatment.

If you feel overwhelmed by your emotions or have flashbacks, there are a few things that can calm your body and help you express your emotions. Try:

  • Punching pillows or ripping paper to safely get your anger out
  • Practicing deep breathing and noticing the sounds, sights, and smells around you when you feel panicked or afraid
  • Writing your feelings in a journal
  • Moving your body by gently shaking or dancing
  • Expressing your feelings through painting, drawing, writing, or singing

It’s important to remind yourself that these emotional or behavioral problems are normal responses to pain you lived through. Be patient with yourself and find help and support. ‌

As you work through recovery, you will get better at managing your emotions, behaviors, and memories. You will also get better at caring for yourself and can have safe and healthy relationships.‌

If you need help, contact the Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to 741741 to speak to a crisis counselor.