Child abuse takes many forms. Physical abuse—the horrific type that grabs headlines—can have long and devastating consequences on a child's emotional growth and development, but significant harm can also come from the less visible (and possibly more common) forms of abuse, like parental neglect, indifference, humiliation, and cruel and intentional criticism. And quite often, people don't realize they were victimized until problems surface much later in their lives.

The toll that such mistreatment takes can be profound. This makes it essential for adults dealing with the emotional baggage of child abuse to seek the help of a qualified therapist, according to Jeffrey H. Axelbank, PsyD, a psychologist and management consultant based in New Jersey.

Exploring Child Abuse

Axelbank explains that in his own practice, clients often come to therapy for other, unrelated issues, but as they get comfortable talking with him about their childhood, over time it becomes clear that they suffered some type of abuse in the past.

While people typically associate child abuse with physical violations like hitting, hurting, or engaging in sexual contact with a child, other forms of child abuse can be more emotional and more difficult for the victims (both when they are children, and later when they become adults) to recognize since it's so subtle, Axelbank says.

Links to Other Issues

The therapist points out that one of the early clues that someone might have experienced some form of child abuse is a pattern of serious relationship issues. Difficulty connecting with others can be a result of insecurity formed during childhood. If parents fail to keep a child safe, the child may grow up unable to feel safe in adult relationships and find it difficult to trust others. In addition, the child may have mistakenly felt that he or she was to blame for the abuse. That somehow the situation was his or her own fault, which can translate into damaged self-esteem in adulthood.

Axelbank also points to a study published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology (January 2014) that looked at how quickly Canadian adults bounced back from depression. The researchers found that people who had been abused as children took longer for their depression to go into remission, providing dramatic evidence of the long-term impact of child abuse on adults.

Other Clues

Signs of past child abuse in adults also include:

  • Constantly being taken advantage of in adult relationships
  • Engaging in risky or inappropriate sexual activities
  • Difficulty sustaining intimacy
  • Abusing alcohol and/or drugs to numb feelings
  • Trouble parenting your own children appropriately

Seeking Treatment

While many of these problems can also have other causes, Axelbank says if the list sounds familiar, you should take these signs seriously and seek help from a therapist to look more closely at your patterns and your past. He points out that in therapy, you'll probably want to disclose your past at your own comfort level as your relationship grows with the professional; many people need time to feel safe and build up trust.

The good news is that recovery from child abuse is possible. "You can get effective treatment for the effects of child abuse. You aren't condemned to a life of pain," Axelbank stresses, adding, "While you can't make the past go away, you can make the future better."

For more information about child abuse, you can visit the National Children's Alliance website or go to American Psychological Association's website to find a therapist in your area.

Jeffrey H. Axelbank, PsyD, reviewed this article.


Jeffrey H. Axelbank, PsyD, psychologist, phone interview 14 January 2014.

Esme Fuller-Thomson et al. "Bouncing back: remission from depression in a 12-year panel study of a representative Canadian community sample." Web. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, January 2014.