This section also has a page with some cautions about how to understand the impacts of unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences, in particular. That is, sometimes people over-estimate such effects, or don’t consider the bigger picture, for example the kinds of relationships in which such experiences happen or are not prevented or stopped from happening.
Effects on Many Aspects of Development
Unwanted and abusive childhood experiences are never disconnected from the rest of a child’s life. So the consequences can be quite complex – and take time to sort out, understand, and deal with in healthy ways.
Let’s get a sense of this complexity and bring some order to it…
These experiences happen to children who are developing in many ways, including:
- In their thinking capacities.
- In their abilities to deal with emotions.
- In abilities to relate to other kids and adults.
- As moral beings with values learned from others and increasingly chosen for themselves.
- As boys heading toward manhood and girls heading toward womanhood.
These things are interwoven. What’s going on in one affects the others. For example, the kinds of relationships we have are determined by how we think, by how we deal with our emotions, and by what we believe and value. And our thoughts, emotions and values are influenced by our beliefs about how boys and men and girls and women are supposed to be.
Interconnected and unique effects in the lives of children and adults
Unwanted or abusive childhood experiences can impact – and shape – many aspects of development. This has been shown by decades of scientific research. It’s discovered every day by adults who’ve had these experiences and the people who know them well.
Most importantly, every person is different, with a unique array of factors shaping her or his life.
Factors That Can Shape the Effects
Several things can influence the impacts of such experiences, especially:
- Age when the experiences happened. Younger is usually more harmful, but different effects are associated with different developmental periods.
- Who else was involved. Effects are generally worse when it was a parent, step-parent, or trusted adult than a stranger.
- Whether the child told anyone, and if so, the person’s response. Doubting, ignoring, blaming and shaming responses can be extremely harmful – in some cases even more than the harmful sexual, physical or emotional experiences themselves.
- For sexual experiences, whether or not physical violence was involved, and if so, how severe it was.
- How long the experiences went on.
Other factors that that play out differently for every person:
- Whether the experiences involved deliberate humiliation.
- How ‘normal’ such experiences were in the extended family and local culture.
- Whether the child had loving family members, and/or knew that someone loved him or her.
- Whether the child had some good relationships – with siblings, grandparents, friends, teachers, coaches, etc.
- Whether the child had relationships in which difficult and ‘vulnerable’ feelings were acceptable, and could be expressed and managed in safe and healthy ways.
Some of those effects reflect how abusive the experiences were, and some the kinds of the relationships in which the experiences and the child’s reactions played out. They’re all very important.
You don’t have to figure everything out
Lots of research has been done on how such things determine the consequences of unwanted or abusive childhood sexual, physical and emotional experiences. Researchers talk about ‘risk factors,’ which make bad effects more likely, and ‘protective factors,’ which make bad effects less likely.
Every man or woman who’s had such experiences is different, and has a unique combination of risk and protective factors that have influenced the effects in his or her life.
Before going into more detail on some of the most common effects, with the other pages in this section, here are some bottom lines and suggestions:
- The effects of unwanted or abusive childhood experiences, and what determines such effects, can be very complex.
- It can be helpful to learn about how such experiences can – depending on a variety of other factors – affect various aspects of children’s and adult’s lives.
- You don’t have to figure everything out, which may not even be possible, especially in the short term.
- It’s helpful keep in mind the ‘big picture’ and avoid over-simplifying things too much.
Abusive or Harmful Childhood Experiences and Being Human
It is important to consider all of this within the bigger picture of being human. By this I mean:
All human beings suffer painful experiences, and some of these occur in childhood.
All parents and caregivers of children are sometimes unable to protect them from painful experiences, and sometimes inflict them on their own children.
We all need love and support to deal with the effects of painful experiences.
Everyone must find ways to cope with the emotions generated by painful experiences – whether or not we get love and support from others.
Many coping or self-regulation strategies work in some ways, but also limit people in other ways. For example:
- Ignoring painful feelings may reduce one’s conscious experience of them. But it also prevents one from learning how to manage them in smaller doses, let alone larger ones – which makes one vulnerable to alternating between feeling little or no emotions and being overwhelmed and unable to cope with them.
- Avoiding getting close to people and trying to hide all of one’s pain and vulnerabilities may create a sense of safety. But this approach to relationships leads to a great deal of loneliness, prevents experiences and learning about developing true intimacy and trust, and makes one vulnerable to desperately and naively putting trust in the wrong people and being betrayed again.
- At the extreme, getting really drunk can block out painful memories and feelings, including the feeling of being disconnected from others – but cause lots of other problems and disconnections from people.
Some people suffer more painful experiences than others, and abuse is one of many possible causes of extreme emotional pain (others include life-threatening illness, death of a loved one, physical disfigurement, etc.).
Some people get more love and support from their families and friends than others, and families in which abuse occurs tend to provide less of the love and support needed to recover from abuse. But families in which abuse does not happen can also experience significant problems, and can make it hard for family members to deal with the inevitable painful experiences in life.
Finally, because everyone needs caring relationships and love, it’s important to recognize that emotional neglect can be more devastating than emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse, particularly in the earliest years of life.
This section of my website covers some of the most common effects of harmful unwanted and abusive childhood experiences, but certainly not all. For additional and fairly comprehensive information from the U.S. government, see Impact of Child Abuse & Neglect.