As a licensed clinical social worker I have experience working with many different types of people and have heard many stories – some quite shocking. Yet I am still taken aback when I hear adults recount their stories of childhood abuse or neglect. Even with shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil bringing horrific stories of abuse right into our living rooms we still find it hard to believe that many children suffer crippling abuse throughout their childhoods.

I want to share with you 6 types of childhood abuse that you should be aware of. Some of these types of abuse are well known – other types less known. All are devastating and can leave life long scars that impact life as an adult. If you or someone you know was abused during childhood and believe things like “it didn’t affect me”, “I deserved it I was a wild kid’, or “it’s all in the past now”. Please STOP IT!

The pain of childhood abuse DOES affect you now.
No child, no matter how wild, rambunctious or naughty deserves to be abused.
An unexamined, buried, and suppressed past is never forgotten and often ends up being your present and future. It does not go away.
1. Dysfunctional childhood due to Neglect

This is the most common type of dysfunctional childhood. These children were neglected, ignored, or abandoned by their parents or care takers. Kids who were neglected in childhood grew up with a lack of food at home, dirty clothes, no access to toiletries for hygiene, unpaid bills that resulted in no utilities, dirty apartments or houses, no health care treatment, absent parents or parents who provided little guidance or rules among other neglectful acts. Kids who were neglected in childhood often had to fend for themselves – stealing food, clothes, and toiletries. Staying out at all hours,’crashing’ with friends. Many ended up on the streets or in jail

2. Dysfunctional childhood due to physical abuse

This is one of the most well-known types of dysfunctional childhoods. Kids who were physically beaten were often blamed for their parent’s inability to control their frustration and anger. These kids were told that they were ‘bad’, “evil’, “disobedient’ and the like. It was common for kids to be spanked or whipped and there is still a debate going as to whether spanking is okay today.

During childhood if you lived in fear of your parent(s) because of regular beatings, whippings or spankings you most likely experienced abuse. And the fear and trauma experienced during childhood often continues to impact adult life if not faced.

3. Dysfunctional childhood due to sexual abuse

This is another type of well-known abuse. Any type of sexual contact directly or indirectly by an adult with a child is abusive. According to recent studies most children are sexually abused by someone they know not by a complete stranger. Many children keep secrete sexual abuse and end up carrying it with them into adulthood.

Sexual abuse does not only happen to girls. The number of sexually abused boys is growing as more admit to being abused. Sexual abuse manifests and impacts adult life in many ways – difficulty forming intimate relationships, engaging in promiscuous behavior, sexual addictions, or sexual avoidance among others. The emotional impact of childhood sexual abuse during adulthood can be devastating if healing is not sought.

4. Dysfunctional childhood due to emotional abuse – “toxic parents”

Sometimes kids were not overtly abused like with physical or sexual abuse but were instead the victims of emotional abuse. This can include verbal (emotional outbursts, yelling, cursing, etc) abuse by a parent, playing psychological games, humiliation, anger outbursts, and other types of manipulative and “gamey” behavior by a parent or caretaker.

Adults who were emotionally abused during childhood may feel misunderstood because the abuse they suffered was not overt. Our culture barely acknowledges neglect of a child, physical, and sexual abuse. Often people who were emotionally abused minimize their abuse and say, “well at least I wasn’t beaten” making examination of the effects of this type of abuse harder to treat.

5. Dysfunctional childhood due to alcohol and/or substance abusing parents

Children who grew up with one or both of their parents abusing alcohol or substances can sometimes face the same issues as children who were neglected or emotionally abused. Adult Children of Alcoholics is a self-help organization based on the same principles of alcoholics anonymous and encourages survivors to check their lives and begin actions that heal.

Intense feelings of guilt, shame, desires for perfectionism, and rescuing or enabling behavior continues well into adulthood. Many kids who grew up with one or both of their parents abusing substances often become the parent to their parent – abandoning childhood altogether Many do not know how to have fun and can be overly responsible.

6. Dysfunctional childhood due to witnessing domestic violence between parents

If you grew up watching your parents physically fight or one parent regularly physically or emotionally abuse the other parent you experienced abuse. Witnessing regular abuse in your home during childhood affects children. Many children who witness this type of violence lived in fear and were afraid that their parent would be killed. Many felt powerless and were confused about love (this is true of all abused children).

Adults who saw regular violence by a parent or to a parent continue to be affected in adulthood – many have issues with anger, problem solving, forming relationships, and trust among other issues.

I know there are other types of abuse out there. But the main point of this article is to say: The effects of abuse during childhood impact adulthood. The past is never far behind us it’s with us NOW. The good news is that you can have a healthy, satisfying, and nurturing adult life. But it will not happen automatically. It REQUIRES action on your part. There are many kind and caring counselors who welcome the opportunity to help you heal.

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If you are someone who has experienced psychotherapy and found it helpful to your life you probably already understand the value of psychological and emotional exploration.  If you are someone who has witnessed changes in a loved one or friend because of therapy then you too may not need much convincing.  However, if you have an aversion to psychotherapy, are skeptical about it, or perhaps curious but a little afraid to try it,  I hope that this blog might help you reconsider your position.

So what is so important about “talk” or psychotherapy?

I sometimes try to image a world where there is no such thing as therapy or therapists;  a world where there is no psychological or emotional help at all.  In this world you would still find the same social and emotional problems we have now, but without professionals to address those specific issues.

Perhaps in this world you would find clergy members and medical doctors but in this imaginary world these folks offer help within their agendas.  For clergy or religious groups the agenda would be to convert you into a “believer” or assure that you continue to be a “believer”.   For medical doctors it would be to cure your biological or chemical imbalance.

In this imaginary world causes for your emotional distress would be viewed within a certain agenda.  For religious groups it would be due to sin and moral weakness. For medical doctors it would be due to biological, chemical or genetic imbalances.  Emotional mistreatment, neglect, cruelty, social chaos, economic deprivation, family dysfunction – the whole social and emotional ball of wax – would be addressed in this fashion.

In this imaginary world pills, “moral cleansing”, boot strap lifting, encouraged denial of emotional pain, and blame the victim, among others, would be the treatment available.  In this world of “healing” and “help” you would find no conversation, no honest relationship, no empathic listening, no attempts at emotional understanding, no emotional support, and no unconditional positive regard.    This all sounds awful to me but in my opinion, not to far removed from where conventional mental health, psychology, and psychiatry are headed.

In my city of Portland Oregon, many therapist are worried that they will not be able to continue independent psychotherapy practice in the future without being involved in large health care/ insurance organizations who will dictate how psychotherapy is practiced.  It is projected that this “new system of care” will have even more rules, regulations, “improvement” indicators and over seeing by insurance companies (who’s motive is financial profit not emotional health) than we already have.   Most of us are already familiar with the huge increase in prescribed psychiatric medication when we seek emotional help from health care professionals.  In addition, there is also a resurgence in electro-shock treatment despite everything we know about it.  Who knows maybe psychosurgery a.k.a. lobotomy will be next (with a new chic name no doubt).  Seems to me we will do just about anything to avoid talking to one another about how we truly feel and experience the world.

And these are some reasons why therapy matters.  Pills and electroshock are no substitutions for relationship and empathy fostered by psychotherapy.   Psychology research shows that relationship and social connection are what facilitates emotional health, healing, and well-being for most human beings.  We are social creatures not cases.  We enter the world upon birth ready to engage in loving and healthy social interaction.  Unfortunately many of us don’t receive this and end up emotionally suffering in our lives because of it.

Good psychotherapy gives us the opportunity for exploring unconditional and empathic connection to our real selves for ourselves through the medium of the therapeutic relationship.  There is nothing like it in this world!   This is the type of professional emotional help I want when I am in need of it.  Yes, therapy matters.