Understanding adult survivors of childhood maltreatment provides a potential opportunity to end cyclical abuse.
I understand that this is not an easy conversation, but the only way to overcome is to confront. I used to believe I had beat the odds as an adult survivor of child abuse. Statistically, that seemed inevitable.
I knew the events in my childhood were not my fault, yet somehow, in adulthood, I found myself submerged in a decade-long, domestic violence relationship. I questioned why people, including myself, stay in abusive relationships, and I found an answer hidden within patterns that generate what is known as the cycle of abuse.
Intergenerational transmission of abuse and neglect has created a cycle of violence. We must recognize and articulate the similarities between childhood trauma and adult domestic violence. It could provide us with the tools to develop alternative treatments and resources for adult survivors. Our brains are structured by early life experiences. Maltreatment during formative years causes the brain to develop unique ways to cope with conflict. These coping mechanisms however, are no longer beneficial to victims in adulthood, and they must be self-aware to unlearn unwanted habits – something extremely difficult to accomplish later in life.
To believe that children simply outgrow the side effects of abuse has caused adult survivors to remain silent. This leaves research with wavering statistics and slows the development of new treatments. Victims’ anger, shame and despair can lead to self-destructive behaviors that include depression, anxiety, substance abuse and can also lead to homelessness.
The problem people do not understand is that these behaviors and mental disorders make day-to-day life challenging. Therapy for this type of abuse is not available to the people who need it most, and crisis centers only allow 10 free sessions before they begin to charge. The current system sets victims up for failure—I wonder how survivors are supposed to avoid homelessness if the depression is so severe, they cannot even get out of bed.
This victimization of children makes them vulnerable to perpetuating the cycle of abuse as they mature. Those involved in romantic relationships as adults subconsciously seek out a partner who will abuse them. They may even believe that the abusive behaviors are an act of love. Victims have low self-esteem type beliefs that keep them paralyzed and willing to accept something that is unacceptable.
Abusers reinforce this lack of self-worth by saying that abuse is normal, that they are overreacting, or by gaslighting their victims. The combination of low self-esteem, intermittent love and abuse, and escalating threats and violence toward the victims’ attempts to free themselves, is enough to make any human being feel hopeless enough to stay. The abuse continues until the victim finds the courage to leave or is abused to death.
Psychiatric patients who have suffered from childhood abuse or neglect are far more difficult and expensive to treat compared to other patients who were raised in healthy environments. Delinquency and criminality are common outcomes of upbringings filled with abuse, neglect, domestic violence between parental figures and bullying. Think of the potential within our communities if we needed fewer prisons because the issues were addressed and treated proactively. Think of the benefits of moving one step closer to a society that everyone could experience and enjoy.
We must acknowledge and speak candidly if we ever hope to end this violent cycle. We would have to commit ourselves to improving access to educational programs for children and provide educators with a system and the tools to help their students. We need to educate parents
on how to better nurture their children. Children must learn how to bond with others before their destructive behaviors become part of their subconscious. We cannot be silent when faced with society’s rape culture— we need to talk. We must start talking.