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How Childhood Abuse Shows Up In Adult Life (and what to do about it)

Updated: Dec 10, 2022

Childhood abuse happened in the past. Unfortunately the effects of abuse don’t stay tucked in the past but rather invade your daily life in ways that you might not expect.

Let’s start at the beginning.

What is Childhood Abuse?

Abuse is a perceived threat to one’s safety and can be physical, emotional, verbal or sexual. When we think of abuse we usually think of physical or sexual acts, but emotional and verbal abuse can be just as devastating. Abuse can be “overt” or “covert”. The overt abuse is the obvious kind – easier to see and understand as wrong, such as inappropriate sexual touch, beatings, or insulting a child. Covert abuse is tricky though since by it’s very nature it’s hidden. Covert abuse is often passive aggressive and hard to call out, so it’s especially insidious. Even sexual abuse can be covert, defined as a sexualized relationship where no sexual touching takes place. Often this is when a parent places their child in the emotional role of surrogate spouse – the child is expected to take care of the adult’s emotional needs. Emotional abuse can be overt, such as verbal insults directed at a child, or can be covert, such as emotional neglect and invalidation. Every child needs unconditional love and safety. When these things are compromised, trauma is the result. Even well meaning parents can emotionally abuse their children through lack of understanding or difficult life circumstances.

Allow yourself to redefine abuse and trauma for yourself. It’s not always what you see on TV and movies.

Defenses Against Abuse

When you are under threat, primitive defenses kick in to protect you. The most well known of these defenses are the flight, fight, freeze responses that we see in animals when they are under attack. Visualize a predator chasing it’s prey – that is the flight response. During flight stress hormones flood the system and give you the energy you need to get the hell out. Fight also relies on these same stress hormones and serves to sharpen your focus and prime you for battle. Flight and fight are active defenses, meaning you are doing something physically. The freeze response is a little different. In freeze the stress hormones have flooded the system, but the system is overwhelmed and shuts down. Imagine a rabbit frozen in terror or a deer in the headlights. We are creatures of instinct. If we are under threat we will use whatever defense we think will save us from the threat. A small child may be unable to run away or to fight, so freeze may be the safest option for survival. A teenager may rebel (fight) or may play the part of “good girl” in order to avoid being noticed (freeze) or may escape into imaginary worlds or substances (flight). Whichever defense strategy is used will effect the adult in later life.

Defenses Stay With Us

Have you ever known someone who was always ready for a fight? On the edge of their seat, watching every move by people around them just in case a threat might be present? This is an example of the fight defense that might have been activated by a trauma and never really subsided. Until that trauma is resolved, there will always be a part of that person looking for the next fight.

What about someone who runs at the slightest indication of a problem? Perhaps they move a lot, or change jobs frequently. It’s common for someone stuck in the flight response to have a very difficult time maintaining relationships as they are perceived as threatening and something to be escaped. The movie Runaway Bride comes to mind when I think of the flight response.

Freeze is harder to see from the outside since it is a felt sense rather than an action. Have you ever felt like you couldn’t move, couldn’t make a decision, couldn’t take an action even though you knew that something had to change? Have you ever felt paralyzed? This might have been the freeze response.

You can’t will yourself out of these impulses. You have to process the trauma underneath them. It doesn’t matter if the trauma happened decades ago, unconsciously and biologically these impulses stay with you, even if you mentally have left the abuse behind.

Common Symptoms of Unresolved Abuse

  • Problems maintaining relationships with friends, family or partners

  • Overwhelming emotions that dominate your life

  • Urge to run away from situations or to fight against them, or inability to take action at all

  • Feeling like something is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it

  • Chronic insomnia

  • Frequent unexplained illness or chronic pain

  • Always feeling unsafe, out of place

  • Terror of being abandoned

  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering things

  • Self destructive actions or patterns

The first step to resolving these symptoms is to recognize the actual cause of the symptoms. Is it based in trauma or abuse, or is it situational? Not everything is tied to trauma: it’s possible that these symptoms could be be caused by something other than trauma. If you have a lot of symptoms on this list, though, consider the possibility that it might be linked to unresolved emotional or physical abuse. I highly recommend seeing a trauma professional or joining a community support group if you think that you have some unresolved abuse.

Further reading:

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