How Child Abuse Affects Adult Survivors

When a child under 18 is intentionally harmed by an adult or another child, this is known as child abuse. This abuse can be physical, sexual or emotional and can involve neglect, grooming or other practices such as female genital mutilation.

Child abuse may be a one-off incident, or it can happen more than once over a period of time. It does not have to be a physical or verbal attack – neglect is also a form of child abuse that involves a lack of attention and care.

Children can be abused both in-person and online, and many children who are abused often experience more than one type of abuse.

If an adult was abused as a child, this is known as non-recent or historical abuse and can have a lasting impact on their adult life no matter how long ago the abuse took place. It’s common for people to blame themselves for any past abuse, but it’s important to remember that you were not at fault and to recognise that what happened to you was a crime that should not have occurred under any circumstances.

What are the different types of child abuse?

‘Child abuse’ is an umbrella term that covers a range of different types of abuse many of which can be difficult to spot. It’s important to be aware of the various forms that child abuse can take, as this can help you to recognise whether you suffered any of the following experiences during your childhood.

1. Physical child abuse

When someone intentionally and/or maliciously inflicts physical harm or injury on a child, this is known as physical child abuse. It is one of the most common types of child abuse and accounts for around 25% of cases, and in severe cases can result in death. [1]

Physical abuse can involve:

  • Punching
  • Slapping and hitting with hands or objects
  • Kicking and stomping
  • Shaking
  • Pushing
  • Breaking bones
  • Throwing
  • Poisoning
  • Scratching
  • Strangling
  • Stabbing and slashing

Although any child may be at risk of suffering physical abuse, babies and disabled children are more vulnerable as they are often unable to understand the situation and may have difficulty speaking up about their experiences.

2. Sexual child abuse

If a child is forced, coerced, bribed or tricked into performing sexual acts or activities, they are being sexually abused. It can often be difficult for a child to understand that what is happening is wrong, and as a result, they may be hesitant or ashamed to speak up about the abuse.

The child does not need to be physically touched in order to suffer sexual abuse and this type of abuse can happen anywhere, both in-person or online.

Sexual abuse can involve:

  • Penetrating the child with a body part or object
  • Touching the child’s body in a sexual manner
  • Exposing the child to pornography or sexual acts
  • Making the child undress
  • Making the child touch themselves or someone else in a sexual manner
  • Exposing themselves in front of the child
  • Discussing sexual matters with a child
  • Photographing, filming or recording a child in a sexual manner
  • Sharing indecent and inappropriate images of children

Sexual abuse does not always involve rape or sexual touching – kissing or speaking to a child inappropriately can also be classed as sexual abuse.

3. Emotional child abuse

Also known as psychological abuse, emotional abuse involves the mistreatment of a child on an emotional level over a period of time. It can include humiliation, scare tactics, isolation and spitefulness and is often used as a display of power and control.

Emotional abuse can involve:

  • Regularly criticising and insulting the child
  • Attempting to humiliate the child
  • Intimidating and threatening the child
  • Calling the child insulting and hurtful names
  • Isolating the child from friends and other family members
  • Frequently ignoring the child and their successes
  • Attempting to control every aspect of the child’s life and personality
  • Blaming the child for events that are outside their control
  • Regularly attempting to hurt or upset the child

While emotional abuse can be an isolated form of abuse, it commonly occurs as part of other types of abuse such as neglect or grooming.

4. Neglect

As the most common type of child abuse in the UK, neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to meet the child’s basic needs. This may involve failing to adequately feed the child or ensure that they have the appropriate clothing and footwear to keep them protected from the elements.

Neglected children may appear hungry, malnourished, dirty, unkempt and in poor physical health. However, neglect is not always visible – failing to ensure that the child receives an education is also classed as neglect, as well as ignoring medical advice and allowing the child to roam around unsupervised when it is dangerous to do so.

Finally, children may be emotionally neglected in the form of humiliation, isolation, intimidation or being ignored and left out.

5. Grooming

In the age of the internet and online forums, grooming commonly occurs online and involves an adult building a relationship with a child in order to exploit and manipulate them. A groomer may work to build trust and an emotional connection with the child over a short or long period of time before ultimately attempting to abuse them.

It is common for groomers to infiltrate online forums and chat rooms commonly populated by children or teenagers, such as gaming servers and social media platforms. They may pose as a younger and more attractive person in order to quickly gain the trust of the child, eventually attempting to isolate and potentially blackmail them in order to force them to submit to their will.

A groomer does not have to be a stranger, and grooming does not always happen online – they could be a teacher, family friend or a person of authority such as a church leader or coach. Children who are victims of groomers may be abused, trafficked or exploited in other ways.

6. Female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the practice of cutting, altering or removing a female’s genitals for non-medical reasons. It is considered a criminal offence in the UK and can be an extremely painful and dangerous experience.

FGM has no medical benefits and can cause long-term pain, discomfort and difficulty experiencing sexual pleasure. Many people who perform this practice are not medically trained and can result in serious infection and/or blood loss, with the majority of patients offered no anaesthetic during the procedure.

Some females undergo FGM as a newborn baby while others are forced to experience this practice as a child, teenager, bride-to-be or during pregnancy. It is common to receive no warning that the procedure is about to happen, giving the victim no time to seek help and support.

What are the effects of child abuse on adult survivors?

No matter how long ago the abuse took place, the effects of this traumatic experience can have long-lasting effects on your life and if left untreated can continue into adulthood. Whether the abuse was an isolated incident or a more prolonged and long-term experience, it is completely normal and natural to have a reaction to any memories or triggers that remind you of the situation that you survived. [2]

Common effects of child abuse on adult survivors

  • Increased risk of developing a substance use disorder
  • More likely to suffer from mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and depression
  • Increased difficulty with regulating emotions
  • Low self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Feelings of guilt or shame surrounding their childhood and abuse
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships with others
  • Potentially continuing the cycle of abuse with their own children and families
  • More likely to suffer from poor physical health and illness
  • Increased chances of dealing with anger management issues
  • Difficulty feeling or expressing emotions
  • Engaging in risky behaviours such as unprotected sex or stealing
  • More likely to develop an eating disorder including anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder

It’s important that you seek help and support in order to process your feelings and emotions surrounding this experience, and an experienced counsellor can provide a safe and non-judgemental environment in which to explore your thoughts and share your burden.

Can I report abuse that happened to me as a child?

It is never too late to report the abuse that you suffered as a child, no matter how long it has been since the incident took place. In some cases, it may be more difficult for the police to gather evidence and prosecute your abuser, but it is very possible that your abuser will be arrested and prosecuted for their crimes against you.

You can visit a police station in person to report the abuse that you experienced, or call 101 to be connected to your local police force. If it is an emergency, you can call 999 to receive immediate assistance. The police will ask you a number of questions including your name, address, details of the abuse and the name of your abuser and will then give you a reference number for your personal records. [3]

If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of a formal investigation but still wish to report your abuse to the police, it is possible to request this. However if the police believe that another child may be at risk, they may be obligated to continue with an investigation against your wishes.