What is child abuse?

Child abuse can be described as treatment of a child by an adult that causes the child to feel like a bad or defective person. It affects how the child feels about herself and the world. Abuse comes in many forms such as emotional, physical and sexual. A few examples are: inappropriate physical contact, critical comments that undermine self-esteem, harsh punishments, ridicule or contempt, negativity, invalidation, and neglect or disconnection. Child abuse has varying degrees of intensity from mild to moderate to severe. Another way to describe child abuse is the treatment of a child that temporarily relieves the adult from stress or anger and leaves the child hurt and confused. “Children want and need three emotional gifts from parents: their attention, their affection, and their approval” says Dee Anna Parrish, LCSW in her book Abused. Often parents raise their children the way they were parented—this is done automatically and not with any malicious intent. But because it is automatic, it is not thought out or evaluated for its impact on the child. Parents often have a difficult time giving their children what they did not get themselves. For women who were abused as girls, there can be an intensification of the difficulties that all women face in our culture—the need to look “perfect,” and to please and take care of others. Women who have been abused as children often feel dependent on others to feel good about themselves. Their self-esteem comes from the outside rather than the inside. They may be afraid to ask for things because they don’t feel deserving. They may also feel very afraid of being abandoned by those they love.

How does child abuse affect you as an adult?

In very simple terms, life’s challenges are more difficult and seem more threatening to you. Adults who were abused as children have less developed coping skills and therefore are overwhelmed more easily and seem to react to stress in self-defeating ways. Here is a list of symptoms people with traumatic childhoods can have:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty trusting people
  • Difficulty choosing a supportive partner in relationships
  • Difficulty with finding and keeping friends
  • Sensitivity
  • Self-isolation
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Feelings of fear
  • Feeling like a “bad” person
  • Impatience
  • Feeling angry at the world
  • Denial of feelings
  • Partial or complete forgetting of childhood memories
  • Physical health problems
  • Depression and anxiety/panic
  • Alcohol or drug problems

This is a long list! Abuse is very hurtful to children and leaves wounds that cause many kinds of suffering and difficulty. However, there is help.

How can child abuse treatment help you?

As Alice Miller (author of Drama of the Gifted Child) says, people need an “enlightened witness” to the childhood pain in order to heal—someone who can listen without judgment and help uncover the impact that the experience had on who you were then and who you are now. The relationship that develops with your therapist can fulfill this need. We feel this relationship is a very important part of child abuse treatment. As you feel safer, you can begin to understand more about your feelings: fear, anger, and sadness; feelings you may not have been allowed to have as a child. A child abuse counselor can help you learn how to soothe and comfort yourself and understand how to be a different parent to yourself. This work can help you break the cycle of abuse with your own children. Self-understanding can lead to self-acceptance, and an ability to relate better to others with less anger, more empowerment, and more feelings of self-worth. Along the healing path, there are many kinds of child abuse therapy. At Women’s Therapy Services we offer EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) which is a form of therapy that can help reprocess and integrate the traumas you have experienced. We also offer creative therapy with an emphasis on writing for healing. Creativity is another powerful healing tool. Sometimes when it feels like there is nothing you can DO, creating something, a collage, a drawing, painting, story, or poem, even if it feels like the most modest or small effort, can be helpful. It is important that child abuse help for trauma survivors is sensitive to the needs of survivors, providing a safe place to feel your feelings, heal your wounds and learn how to thrive.

Please feel free to call Marlena Kushner (415)563-2759 or Phyllis Klein (415)273-1036 for more information or to set up an appointment.