The legacy of childhood abuse

07 April 2021 | Opinion

Childhood experiences, whether negative or positive, are the funnel of how one navigates through life transitions. Growing up in a deprived, rough and challenging environment can leave painful and long-lasting memories, sometimes causing psychological wounds that not even time can heal.

The shadow of adverse childhood experiences has lasting consequences, disrupting developmental processes and affecting an individual's emotional, social and physical well-being.

Adverse childhood experiences can in?uence the development of negative emotional responses, inhibit emotional awareness and the expression of frustrations through physical pain, which is a strategy to ward off overwhelming feelings or thoughts.

The most common adverse experiences are:

Child physical abuse,

Child sexual abuse,

Child emotional abuse, and

Emotional or physical neglect.

Even though the experiences occur earlier in life, the trauma is imprinted and will manifest in different areas of the person's life. This article identifies three psychological consequences associated with early life traumatic experiences that are pervasive in adulthood.

1. Cognitive errors

The hallmark of childhood abuse is cognitive errors caused by trauma. Cognitive errors/distortions are a pattern of irrational thoughts that view life situations more negatively than they truly are. These errors in cognition are often the root cause of most relationship conflicts.

Either one partner is having distorted thoughts or the other one is protecting themselves from their own distorted thinking. It’s a critical inner voice that limits the development of self-worth and framing a negative self-concept.

It is most likely that people who grew up in an abusive environment will be highly sensitive to criticism, as they cannot manage emotions and tend to engage in unhealthy emotional responses which contributes to mental health problems such as addictive patterns.

Lastly, cognitive errors are faulty mental filters that manufacture irrational judgment and unrealistic expectations.

2. Adult somatic preoccupation

Accumulated emotional pain from past painful experiences not fully accepted or released manifests feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt and depression; and is externalised through physical body pain.

Somatic preoccupation during adulthood is a classified disorder characterised by spending excessive amounts of time on physical symptoms and health concerns. Although a person with somatic symptom disorder reports symptoms which are real and not imagined, the cause cannot be medically explained. Therefore, the distress motivates the person to visit multiple medical doctors, alternative healing practitioners such as prophets or traditional healers and even undergoing many medical procedures. Why somatisation? To relieve the psyche of its distress, an unconscious desire for attention and a mechanism to elicit a nurturing response from others.

Attachment problems

Patterns of child-caregiver attachment are extremely important for a child's early emotional and social development. When children are not adequately cared for, their sense of trust is undermined, compromising their safety and survival needs.

When damaged, that fundamental aspect upon which all relationships should be built will teach the child that no ono is reliable and, therefore, no one can be trusted. This can lead to difficulty maintaining relationships due to fear of being controlled or abused.

It can also lead to unhealthy relationships because without a point of reference, the adult does not have a base of what a good relationship should be. A typical example is when a person flees relationships, whether physically or emotionally, fearing some perceived rejection, because they ‘sense’ that they are unwanted.

All types of child abuse and neglect have the potential to leave a legacy of emotional scars which have long-lasting effects throughout life, damaging a child’s sense of self, the ability to have healthy relationships, and function in all spheres of life.

We cannot betray the next generation with our silence/ignorance and continue fogging reality with explanations based on culture or religion. Many of today's adults are scarred by childhood experiences, tormented by a haunting legacy of pain.

Ceaseria Matiti is a psychological counsellor.

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