The lasting effects of childhood physical and mental abuse can take their toll on adult survivors. Learning to recognize the signs of maltreatment will enable you to step in and assist a child in need. However, children are not only the only targets for abuse. Spouses and elderly parents are often victims of domestic violence.
If you are an adult survivor of abuse, there is hope. You can find treatment to help you cope with the painful memories and negative thoughts.
Signs of Physical Abuse
Although not necessarily easy to spot, physical abuse is prevalent in domestic violence cases. Abuse can take the form of physically hitting, punching, or whipping another person. Other forms include sexual abuse and neglecting or withholding the basic needs of another human being.
Common signs of physical abuse include:
- Bruises and cuts – Unexplained wounds that the victim probably tries to hide. They may wear clothing that covers their bruises, even during the hottest days of the year.
- Burns – Small cigarette burns or burn marks from something larger being pressed onto the victim’s skin, such as a kettle. Typically, the victim isn’t even given proper medical care for these burns, resulting in scarring.
- Frequent sprains or broken bones – Hospitals and emergency care centers will report frequent hospital visits for sprains and broken bones if the wounds cannot
be explained satisfactorily by the victim (or the victim’s parents or guardians).
- Concussions – Concussions from hitting or shaking the victim. Infants shaken to control their crying may develop Shaken Baby (Impact) Syndrome, which can lead to seizures, retinal hemorrhage, coma, and death.
- Bite marks – Bite marks are signs of abuse that show in a pattern. Other items that are used to physically abuse a victim that leave patterns include belts and flyswatters.
Neglecting a person’s basic needs is withholding or not making sure a person has housing with clean living conditions, heat during the cold winter months, food, clothing, and medical care. Neglect also includes leaving a child or elderly (or disabled) adult alone for extended periods of time.
Since children receive bruises and cuts throughout normal childhood adventures, it is critical that you view the child’s entire physical and emotional wellbeing before assuming it is child abuse. If you are in doubt, speak to a licensed professional for confirmation, such as a child’s school counselor or an elderly person’s primary physician.
Signs of Mental Abuse
Signs of mental abuse in both children and adults can be harder to pinpoint. The caregiver may not even be aware that their words and actions are abusive in nature since it is not physical abuse.
Some of the signs of mental abuse include:
- Withholding affection until the victim does whatever they demand.
- Isolating the victim from friends and family.
- Calling the victim names or spiteful pet names.
- Sarcasm or joking meant to belittle the person or their achievements, dreams, or goals.
- Yelling and slamming things to intimidate their victim.
- Threatening the victim or the victim’s loved ones.
- Keeping a close eye on where their victim is if they are an adult.
- Controlling all of their adult victim’s finances or withholding money for basic needs.
- Treating the adult victim like a child including making and canceling plans.
- Giving commands and expecting them to be followed without question.
- Ignoring the victim’s attempts at conversation.
- Gaslighting the victim by pushing their buttons and then denying one has done anything.
- Turning others against the victim with social manipulation and relational bullying.
Abusers frequently use emotions against their victims. The victim doesn’t know how the abuser will react to anything; they may show rage, love, or indifference. This is another way emotionally abusive parents or spouses can control their victims. When the victim reacts, the abuser may tell others that the victim is crazy or mentally ill.
Children living in a mentally (or physically) abusive home may worry about going home or how their parent is going to react to certain news. This anxiety is beyond the occasional bad report card. The child may become physically ill or develop a headache with the thought of going home.
The child may have learning delays or require the services of a speech-language pathologist. Children and adults under the strain of mental abuse can develop low self-esteem and mental health conditions like depression.
The Effects of Past Abuse
The scars from past abuse are sometimes harder to bring into the light as they are hidden, sometimes deeply, within the person’s psyche.
These wounds from physically or emotionally abusive parents can result in survivors with mental health conditions or adults who are emotionally distant from loved ones.
Some of the more common effects of abuse include:
- Anxiety – Anxious thoughts can lead to physical ailments like anxiety attacks, sudden panic attacks, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal distress.
- Depression – Survivors may experience bouts of deep depression, although they may be unaware of the root cause if the abuse occurred at a very early age. Some survivors develop manic-depressive states, an extreme swing between “high-highs and low-lows.”
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – PTSD can occur in both children and adults. The disorder dredges up the victim’s memories and feelings about the traumatic event with intrusive dreams/nightmares and thoughts. PTSD can also create hallucinatory visions.
- Trust issues – A victim may not be able to lend trust freely after abuse, especially if the abusive relationship was long term. They may be afraid they are going to lose the love or approval of people, and therefore, appear emotionally distant.
- Self-destructive behaviors – Eating disorders, self-harm behaviors like cutting or burning, and living a high risk-taking lifestyle are self-destructive behaviors created to numb the pain of the trauma. These survivors are not thriving but trying to control the only thing they can – their bodies.
- Suicidal thoughts – A survivor may find negative thoughts too much to endure. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, seek help from a mental health professional or faith-based counselor immediately. Hope and healing are possible.
Often, a survivor of abuse is trying to figure out how to cope with past trauma while moving forward with their life. Talk therapy (also referred to as psychotherapy) and other techniques can help to replace those intrusive memories and beliefs with constructive and positive emotions.
Treatment for Physical and Mental Abuse
Children removed from an abusive relationship can heal from the trauma. A licensed therapist can assist the child through play therapy, art therapy, family therapy, and (depending on the age) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is commonly used with children and adults for a variety of mental health conditions. It is extremely beneficial for survivors dealing with PTSD. The therapy helps to identify the thoughts, memories, and emotions related to the event. Then the patient learns techniques on how to reframe the event and replace those negative thoughts, thus changing the emotions.
When they change how they feel about the memories, their behavior will also change. This can help reverse some of the self-destructive behaviors such as an eating disorder.
Talk therapy is effective in one-on-one sessions with a therapist or in a group therapy setting. These group or family sessions can be held at the therapist’s private office or in a facility. Some facilities offer faith-based counseling services that combine professional mental health resources with the Christian faith. These treatments focus on the healing of the mind and spirit after the trauma.
In these settings, the survivor will learn how to rely on God and prayer as well as psychological techniques to overcome the negative thoughts and memories. Depending on the specific circumstance, the patient’s treatment may focus on forgiveness and grace, not only for the abuser but for the victim.
As a survivor learns how to overcome and move on from a childhood of abuse or adult relationship maltreatment, they will realize that not only will they survive what happened to them in the past, but they will thrive. Although their hurts are hidden many times from the outside world, a victim of abuse should never feel alone. Help is only a phone call away.
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