Psychological research has documented possible negative effects of maltreatment on every aspect of a child's life. Some behaviors may begin as defense mechanisms adopted by the child to survive the abuse, such as the repression of painful memories that spawns full-blown mental disorders or at least symptoms during the adult years.
The most common psychological disorder seen in an estimated two thirds of abused children is depression.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Fifty percent of abused children also show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is an anxiety disorder, common to soldiers who've fought in wars and survivors of natural disasters. Anyone who has felt intense fear or been threatened with death or injury can develop PTSD with flashbacks, nightmares, and severe psychological and/or physical symptoms when exposed to stimuli (people, places, or sensory experiences) that trigger memories of the trauma. PTSD sufferers are easily startled and often cannot tolerate crowds of people.
Distortions or exaggerations of fear reactions are frequently experienced by child abuse survivors. Agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, is common. Others are fear of driving and claustrophobia, a fear of entrapment in small spaces that may require an adult survivor to have a door or window open at all times.
The defense of dissociation occurs when a victim detaches his conscious mind from the memory of a traumatic event. This can manifest later as a "zoning out" from the here and now, or a compartmentalization of emotions from other aspects of the self. In its extreme, this can become a "dissociative disorder," when one has multiple personalities (as depicted in the movie Sybil) to cope with the aftereffects of abuse.
Child sexual abuse can contribute to the development of a borderline personality disorder in later life. This disorder results from projecting a part of oneself on to other persons and a lack of emotional control. As a result of this splitting off of a part of one's own self, persons with this disorder shift between idealizing and demonizing other persons. They may be loving and trustful one moment and raging and distrustful moments later—toward the same person. They tend to be unable to sustain stable personal, social, or professional relationships. They also frequently display self-destructive and impulsive behaviors, for example, driving recklessly and engaging in promiscuous sex.
For survivors of child physical or sexual abuse, addiction to alcohol or drugs can serve their need to numb the pain of their memories of abuse. Addiction can be to an activity such as gambling or shopping as much as to a substance or alcohol.
Child sexual abuse victims are especially vulnerable to eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and bulimia, as well as obesity from overeating. Some say that starving themselves is an attempt by anorexics to control their own bodies after years of feeling as though their abuser had that control. When a sexual abuse victim experiences compulsive overeating, this behavior often stems from a feeling of shame toward her body and sexuality.
In one experiment, two groups of toddlers, one consisting of children who had been abused and the other of those who had not been abused, were placed near other children who were crying. The abused children reacted with fear, anger, and even hostility to the distressed children near them. In contrast, the nonabused toddlers reacted with empathy and a desire to comfort the crying children. The study concluded that abused children learn negative ways to respond to negative feelings and lack emotional coping strategies.
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