Child abuse by family members is one of the most destructive kinds of ongoing trauma, because children are still developing neurologically and psychologically, and are vulnerable to intense stress. They generally cannot escape their abusers, and would not even choose to do so, because they are emotionally dependent on them and are frightened of the alternative.
Subtle kinds of emotional abuse and inappropriate adult behaviors can be as harmful to children as the more obvious forms of domestic violence. Emotional abuse is also more difficult to identify or describe when victims try to communicate their experience to potential helpers, either in childhood or in later years. Tone of voice and non-verbal messages are difficult to relay to another
Familial child abuse also differs from other kinds of trauma in that family members may deny or ignore the abuse, minimize its importance, or regard it as normal. As a result, abused children tend to become confused about the accuracy of their perceptions and memories, and the appropriateness of their emotional reactions to the abuse. By the time they grow up and enter therapy, they may know only that they suffer from chronic depression and anxiety. When the therapist inquires about childhood experiences, adult clients often minimize or do not recognize, mistreatment by family members, and frequently dismiss its role in causing current emotional and interpersonal problems.
The emotions experienced during the childhood abuse can surface in an intense way when someone says or does something that reminds the victim of traumatic incidents. When they are connected with a therapist, people begin to see how they can understand their present interactions with other people, as it relates to past abuse. They often express surprise that they are re-experiencing incidents from their childhood in their current relationships with other people, whose similarity to the original abusers may be minimal or non-existent. Over time, survivors can change their images of themselves as helpless victims of abusers into a new sense of being adults capable of self-protection and action.
Therapy for adults abused or abandoned as children is an intensive process requiring a substantial commitment of time and effort by both the therapist and the client. The good news is that recent progress in the field of trauma therapy offers everyone hope of recovery.
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