Childhood trauma can cause trauma for life



One 58-year-old woman from Indiana, Pa., still struggles daily from memories of her father routinely forcing her, her mother and siblings at gunpoint against a wall while he shot a ring of bullets around them.

Robin, 43, of the North Hills, still lives with her mother, who she says has verbally abused her since childhood. Robin said she has repeatedly been told she’s worthless and a big disappointment. Now she’s undergoing weekly therapy, while seeing an abuse counselor, along with taking medications to help her function.  

Psychological abuse can be deadly

On average, four or five children die daily from maltreatment, with those numbers likely underestimating the death toll, according to Childhelp, a nonprofit organization focused on the treatment and prevention of child abuse. Its statistics show:

• Each year brings 3 million reports of child abuse involving about 6 million children. 

• It is estimated that as many as 60 percent of child fatalities due to maltreatment are not recorded as abuse on death certifications, with 70 percent of children who die from abuse being under the age of 4.

• Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and levels of education. 

• In at least one study, about 80 percent of 21-year-olds who were abused as children met criteria for at least one psychological disorder.

Still another 28-year-old woman of Washington, Pa., who asked that her name not be published, says she’s so emotionally terrorized by her mother that she’s adopted a survival strategy: “They say that time heals all wounds, but I’ve found distance to be more helpful.”

It has long been clear: Childhood abuse of any kind — physical, sexual or psychological — has profound impacts on children, adversely affecting mental and physical health throughout life. The chronic levels of stress hormones kill off brain cells and shrink the hippocampus, the brain’s emotional center.

Now a growing arm of research is pointing at the impacts of psychological and emotional abuse — the constant pronouncements that the child is worthless, stupid or doomed to failure, with chronic neglect causing its own dire impacts.  

A study published last month in the American Psychological Association journal, Psychological Trauma, Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, analyzed 5,616 youths in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Core Data Set with lifetime histories of one or more of the three types of abuse — psychological maltreatment (emotional abuse or emotional neglect), physical abuse and sexual abuse.

Most (62 percent) had a history of psychological maltreatment and 24 percent of all cases were exclusively that type of abuse, which included “inflicted bullying, terrorizing, coercive control, severe insults, debasement, threats or overwhelming demands” from a caregiver. Neglect includes a child being shunned or isolated.

Psychological abuse during childhood becomes encoded in the brain. The memories become tyrannical, heightening the risk of high rates of depression, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem or post-traumatic stress. Suicides among these victims occur at the same rate, and sometimes at a higher rate, than among children who were physically or sexually abused, the study says.

The psychological effects also can lead to chronic health problems including heart disease and diabetes. Impacts also can include problems dealing with others, isolation or desensitization or difficulty in dealing with authority. Some resort to self-injury. 

Tamika, 35, of Bellevue, stepped forward to tell her story about persistent childhood abuse she experienced that has forged a difficult adulthood.

She said her mother, who now lives in California, called her ugly and worthless, once impulsively cutting off her bun of hair to give her an uneven chop, only to deride her for being bald. She also would cut off her ponytails for no reason. The African-American child was verbally abused on a daily basis, with her mother chiding her dark complexion, she said.

There was also some physical abuse, she said. Based on lifelong self-analysis, Tamika says she believes she was mistreated because she resembled her father, who disappeared from the family in Mississippi when she was a young child. 

“The problem with my mother is that she had such evil intent toward my father, and I looked like him. So she tortured me because she wanted to torture him,” said Tamika, who spent years in foster homes and now is a single mother of two. “There were negative comments — that I would amount to nothing, that I would always be on the street, that no one wanted me.

”To this day you still feel that no one will ever want you,” she said.

Robin of the North Hills said her mother was controlling and never once said, “I love you.”

“She would speak for me and to me, and I wasn’t allowed to speak,” she said. “She put me in the closet for hours for bad grades. She was badgering, calling me stupid, dummy and that I would never amount to nothing. I was always nervous around her and never wanted to tell her anything. If I brought home a friend, she would make the friend go home. She tried to be the center of attention. I will never hear something nice from her.”

In time, she retreated into her own mind. She got involved with the wrong friends, which persists to this day. She married and has a young daughter, who is her sole source of joy, she said. But her husband committed suicide after she announced she was gay. She moved from job to job, quick to quit whenever reprimanded. “I didn’t give notice. I just say, bye-bye.”

In time, Robin would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and found herself taking 10 prescribed medications, including antidepressants and mood stabilizers. She even underwent electric shock treatment. “I could write a horror book,” she said.

Finally in recent years, she began dealing with the issue. She found a doctor who replaced the medications with one that stabilizes her mood and emotions, along with help from her therapist and abuse counselor.

“I’ve only started dealing with it recently,” Robin said of her mother’s behavior. And yet she can’t forgive, let alone forget.  “Your mother is supposed to be your best friend. Not me.”

Among the three types of abuse, psychological maltreatment was most strongly associated with depression, general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, attachment problems and substance abuse, the study states. Psychological abuse that occurs along with other types of abuse caused significantly more severe and far-ranging negative outcomes than when a child was involved in physical or sexual abuse.

Maltreatment can be so impactful that the study equates it with the impacts on children who simultaneously had been sexually and physically abused. It leads to behavioral issues at school, with attachment problems and self-injurious behavior.

Substantiating psychological abuse is difficult for caseworkers because there are no physical wounds, said study leader Joseph Spinazzola, vice president of the Justice Resource Institute and executive director of its trauma center in Brookline, Mass.

“We were surprised at how frequently psychological abuse was associated with the worst impacts of any maltreatment types,” he said. “Psychological abuse is like a hidden stain and these people are stained with the sense of who they are.” 

They don’t like themselves, he said. They expect to fail. They have problems finding healthy relationships. They internalize messages that they are inferior and unworthy of love and success. “It leads people to hate themselves,” Dr. Spinazzola said.

And, yet, the person often ends up spending a lifetime trying to establish a connection with the abusive mother or caregiver, even if they can’t make it happen. People innately seek to connect with their parent, with studies showing young monkeys preferring to stay with their mothers and starve rather than be separated with access to food.

“Those who never had security as children never let that go,” Dr. Spinazzola said. “And when people chronically are stuck there, the yearning for a connection doesn’t go away. Their target is the perpetrator [of abuse]. The person is longing for love and care. It’s ironic and sad.”

Those abused in childhood struggle to come to terms with their past, while fighting urges to blame themselves.

The 28-year-old Washington, Pa., woman said she decided to flee her mother, who was controlling to the point of being emotionally smothering. “I will never be able to talk to her on the phone again, her voice is so triggering,“ she said, noting she’s been in therapy for three years with medications for depression. But she said she’s considering sending her mother in California an email to reconnect with her and check on her health.

”I know that I will not have a chance to see her again before she dies. I love her so deeply, but the hurt is deeper,” she said. 

The Indiana woman, whose father terrorized the family with guns, said she witnessed her father beating her mother and also was severely beaten by him. One time she grabbed a shotgun out of his hands. Another time, she wrestled with him as he wielded a loaded .41 Magnum revolver. Her mother grabbed the gun and fired it at him as he fled the house.

She said she suffers post-traumatic stress and generalized anxiety disorders, with little help. But she married a man who’s now helping her deal with her past. “I am finally, after years of struggle, seeking help for emotional damage as a child,” she said. “I am now working via art, to try to heal. I have reached out to someone who can perhaps guide me to therapy so I can fully heal.” But she also added, “I still loved him.”

Tamika, who works in social services, says her only sources of joy are helping others in her job and raising her son, 8, and daughter, 1. Her therapist, she said, told her she has borderline personality disorder, which she links to childhood detachment from her mother and the lack of nurturing. She also cites problems with relationships, which she flees the moment she senses trouble.

One time when a teacher called her mother, her mother claimed she had no daughter. Such memories feed her self-doubt. 

“Things haunt you,” Tamika said. “I just want people to know that the psychological torture will stay with you.”


David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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