10 Common Characteristics of Child Abuse Survivors
I am sitting here this morning thinking about some of the long term effects of child abuse. Often adults that were abused tend to be extreme “people pleasers” and are fearful of authority. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with wanting to see others happy, but I’m not talking about typical niceness, generosity, or basic humanity. The focus here is the uncontrollable need to please others so that they don’t get mad, you don’t get in trouble (yes, adults abused as children continue to fear “getting in trouble”), or that loved ones will not leave. Here are 10 common characteristics of child abuse survivors.
- Incapable of Completely Trusting Others
- Depreciated Sense of Self-worth
- Elevated “Flight or Fight Response”
- Extreme Anxiety
- Inability to Express One’s Self
- Excessive Self-Doubt
- Difficulty Forming Bonds
- Chronic Over-achievers
- Highly Likely to Engage in Risky Behaviors
- Restlessness Within Themselves
This is just a mere few characteristics that plague child abuse survivors, and not all will exhibit all of these. The above list is what I see as a survivor myself, and what I see most often in my child/adolescent patients at the in-patient mental health hospital in which I work as a Psychiatric Nurse. The damage done leaves scars that can last a lifetime, and the challenges are fought daily.
Trust is a basic developmental milestone that is usually learned during infancy and reinforced throughout ones lifetime. For us, it is an elusive concept. Not having the ability to trust affects all relationships (intimate, casual, and professional), and often it affects what we are able to to achieve i.e., not trying to do new things for fear that something will happen to prevent completion of the achievement or endeavor. For example, many hesitate going to college or applying for a promotion because they may feel that their loved ones will need to be accepting of the time it takes to study, or that maybe a loved one will balk about the extra hours at a new job.
A healthy sense of self-worth is imperative to happiness. In general, people will try to do things they think they are capable of; therefore, if told often enough that they can’t do something they will begin to believe what is said and may never try for fear of failure. This further erodes their sense of self-worth. On the other hand, when accomplishments are achieved, it is tremendously difficult for child abuse survivors to receive compliments, often second guessing intentions or motives. Self-doubt also feeds into another characteristic of being an over-achiever, stemming from a sub-conscious need to prove ones self to be worthy.
Flight or fight response is a defense mechanism that causes anxiety, and is built into all of us for the purpose of self protection. I have been told, more often than not, that I remind people of a scared rabbit. Obviously I don’t actually look like a rabbit, but I have learned that I can appear very anxious or nervous even at times that others would not. It is akin to the saying “waiting for the other shoe to fall”, meaning I have become so accustomed to bad things happening, that I am always anxiously waiting for the inevitable. It is exhausting to say the least, and I can’t count the number of times people say to me “just don’t worry about it”. Do they not understand I am not equipped properly to “just not worry about it”?
Infants and toddlers learn to express themselves to get what they need and what they want. Child abuse survivors often struggle with the basic tool of communication. We can talk, of course, but being able to articulate what we want to say without anxiety or exposing our emotions is quite the challenge. This characteristic links back to some of the others we have already talked a bit about like trust, self worth, anxiety, self-doubt etc. It is often a balancing act to tell others how we feel without worrying about our wording, the judgement of others, or exposing our emotions. Often self-doubt wins and self expression is lost. The fear of these things and of exposing ourselves to potential harm, real or perceived, is too risky.
Difficulty forming bonds is another common characteristic that is seen as a result of child abuse. Okay, please note, I am not at all saying that we can not have relationships or form bonds with our children, family members, for friends at all, I am just stating that it can be challenging for many of us. My difficulty with this centers around my inability to trust, and I find that it is hard for me to express emotions to others verbally in a way that conveys the true depth of my feelings for them. A lot of times when expressing ourselves the words can sound shallow or lacking emotion. This is likely also the result of not wanting to expose ourselves to harm and lack of trust in others with our emotions and innermost thoughts.
The need to achieve at work, school, parenting, sports, and other activities to the point of working excessively long hours, pushing yourself to exhaustion to complete projects early, relentless researching, and many other behaviors engaged in for the purpose of noticeably excelling at a task or activity are behaviors associated with overachievers. Over-achieving for the survivor of child abuse is a simple concept….be good…really good and you will be loved, accepted, kept worthy.
Drugs, promiscuity, self-injurious behavior, and fighting are just a few of the numerous risky behaviors that plague child abuse victims. It is not uncommon for others to label these children/adults as “bad” or “trouble”, when the truth is much different. Often these behaviors result from trying to cope with pain, shame, anger, and disappointment. Surely these are not appropriate ways to cope, but remember, some of us didn’t ever learn to cope in healthy ways with our feelings. Coping skills are tools learned to deal, in positive ways, with negative emotions or situations in life. Our toolbox is empty until someone realizes this, and cares enough to help us fill it up. Sadly, without tools to cope, many child abuse victims engage in risky behaviors for many years, and some have so much difficulty coping and are so hopeless that they may tragically take their own lives.
The last characteristic is the hardest one to explain, as I struggle with this one myself and have a tough time understanding it fully. Restlessness with my life, not the type of restlessness that causes you to get up and do something, or move your legs because you are uncomfortable. It might be best described as the inability to find peace and happiness with ones current lifestyle, job, location, accomplishments, contributions, and self. I always feel that there is something else I should be doing, or find myself searching relentlessly for something without really ever knowing what I am looking for. Could it be safety? Peace? Happiness? Love? Trust? Would I even fully recognize it?
I am writing this article to share with you some of the long-term effects of child abuse for two reasons. First, I believe awareness is the key to helping others, and secondly I want to share some insight from the prospective of a child abuse survivor. Not all children will suffer all of the characteristics I have shared with you here. Just as each child is unique, the spectrum of injuries to body, mind, and spirit that result from child abuse are also unique. There is one thing we all have in common; we all deserve to be loved. Make a difference, even if it’s only in one child’s life because “it will make a difference to that one”. – Starfish Story – adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
RN Writer 2013