Childhood Abuse Symptoms

Including common limiting beliefs maintaining the problems

As more childhood abuse cases are appearing within the media, the damaging effects of abuse are being highlighted. These resultant effects are devastating and are often carried into adult life, resulting in an array of problems and issues which can leave a person feeling damaged, or worse still, destroyed from their experiences.

We believe such people need appropriate caring, gentle therapeutic intervention to achieve resolution. Parks Inner Child Therapy is designed for full resolution for adults with symptoms/problems resulting from childhood abuse.

Below are the most common symptoms/problems resulting from childhood abuse. This is not a complete list, just the most common problems.

The response to childhood abuse varies and people will often have many of these difficulties. These symptoms/problems all stem from the mistaken/limiting beliefs each person developed as a result of childhood abuse.

Also, remember that some of these mistaken beliefs will be so familiar that they are invisible to a person. Although someone may even be using the exact wording of the belief as they speak (i.e. “It’s all my fault, everything is always my fault.”). Seldom are people consciously aware of the mistaken beliefs that operate their behaviour and life.

Alcohol or Drug Abuse

These may be used as a form of self-punishment; a buffer to try to numb feelings; a comfort or a memory blocking device. There is evidence to suggest that a large number of drug and alcohol abusers experienced sexual abuse during childhood.

Alienation from body

Some victims and abuse survivors find it difficult to be comfortable in their own body. There is often a failure to heed body signals (pain; fatigue; hunger or thirst) and a lack of care for their body in either fitness or health areas. They may have a poor body image and sometimes manipulate their body size to avoid sexual attention. This is often concurrent with food, drug or alcohol abuse and low self-esteem. People may spend much of their time in a dissociated state i.e., ‘watching’ their life happen rather than experiencing it.

Aversion to making noise

This includes noise during sex; crying; laughing or body functions. Some people may be softly spoken and pause a lot while speaking as they monitor their words.


Depression can occur as a result of damage to a child’s developing emotional and stress systems. Common symptoms include tearfulness; fatigue; feeling ‘numb’ and an inability to enjoy life. Depression can lead to a cycle of negativity, especially when there is no obvious reason for it. People may feel that they ‘should’ be able to be happy, or like there is “nothing really wrong”.


Flashbacks can take the form of quick visual images, or of sensations or feelings. These often take place during intimacy, but can also accompany everyday activities or simply reading or hearing about other’s abuse experiences. They are triggered by some connection with the abuse through visual, auditory (a partner’s heavy breathing during intimacy is a common one), kinesthetic, gustatory or olfactory sources. Flashbacks are usually fragmented experiences or representations of the abuse and can offer a ‘way in’ to a more complete memory if necessary.

Food Abuse

Food abuse may be manifested in the conditions of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders. People who have experienced abuse sometimes hold the belief that they will not have to face their sexuality if they are unattractive. Eating disordered behaviours such as starving oneself (is considered as self abuse and) self-punishment. Those who are obese can use food as a form of comfort and may maintain their excess weight as a defence against feeling small and vulnerable.


Emotional trauma that has never been resolved can produce physical illness. Migraines; stomach and digestive problems; gynaecological problems, general aches and pains are some of the most common.

Inability to touch or be touched

This problem can be triggered by feelings of dirtiness (a fear that the other person will somehow know of the abuse and be rejecting); fear of contaminating others (an irrational thought stemming from feeling dirty and bad); low self-esteem and the fear that by allowing physical contact one is at risk of further abuse. Touch may bring back memories of unwanted touch from childhood, or an experience that produced pleasurable feelings but now brings shame and disgust. It can also reflect a fear of one’s sexuality.

Inability to trust

When trust in a respected adult is broken at an early age, a child quickly learns to believe that no-one can be trusted. As an adult they unconsciously respond to the belief that others will let them down.

Often, victims of abuse will sabotage relationships by cutting off from people they care about. It seems easier to hurt yourself before others have a chance, particularly when you believe the pain is inevitable. This separation is often done by setting unrealistic tests for friends, partners or family- when the test is failed, the person’s belief that no-one can be trusted is strengthened. This in turn enforces the belief that it is safer to stay behind emotional walls.

Others believe that they will not be accepted if people know about the abuse. Although most are crying out for love and acceptance, their fear and erroneous belief system keeps them trapped within themselves, feeling isolated and hopeless.

Lack of confidence

This common symptom can stem from feelings developed in childhood of guilt and an innate sense of ‘badness’ or feeling defective. It may also result from a lack of rights or opportunities to learn or demonstrate healthy boundaries, and/or from a lack of opportunity to speak up or be truly heard.

Low or high emotional control

Some people will perceive ordinary stressful situations as a crisis, resulting in a shock response or emotional shutdown. They are often termed ‘dramatic’ or ‘hysterical’ types. Others are in a fairly consistent state of emotional and physical numbness.

People who have low emotional control are generally seen to overreact; easily burst into tears; have outbursts of anger; laugh loudly or inappropriately and generally appear demanding and vulnerable. This behaviour may temporarily give a sense of comfort from the attention received, but comfort is short-lived because the attention is usually negative.

Some people are over-controlled emotionally and may appear almost robotic. They are often terrified of their anger, believing that to show any strong emotion could cause them to lose control and give in to the violent rage they fear. At other times the control stems from a misguided childhood belief that the less emotion displayed, the less chance of being noticed. The idea that extreme control lessens the chance of further abuse is an illusion of safety.

Some children learned that they had no rights to emotion and may find it difficult to laugh; cry; complain or even express an opinion. Parents or guardians may have crushed any sign of emotion from these children from an early age. As adults they often build an invisible wall around their feelings in order to protect themselves from being hurt again.

Low Self Esteem

This feeling is often associated with the person’s outward appearance, believing they are ugly and repulsive, regardless of what they actually look like or positive input they may receive, but is also associated with their inner feelings of not being ‘enough’.

Emotional Abuse

Many people believe that sexual and physical abuse experiences do the most damage to children – it is true that damage is done and that the experiences are generally traumatic for children. However, emotional abuse (poor parenting also qualifies in this category) is the real ‘killer’, because it subtly undermines a child’s true identity, and consequently can leave a person with little, or no self-esteem. The misinformation that is learned from poor parenting and the damaging, derogatory comments of emotional abuse create a warped understanding (belief system) about self, others and the world. Because it is learned from infancy onwards the misinformation seems to be the truth. The children are too young to realise the misinformation or the damaging, derogatory comments are not true and because they trust that their parents know what is right and wrong, everything the parents say is taken to heart, as truth.

The two most common mistaken beliefs poor parenting and emotional abuse create are, ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘I’m unlovable’. Those exact words may not be said, but their meaning will clearly be the underlying message received by children and erode healthy self-esteem. Children assume their parents know what they are talking about, but, in reality, the parents are only projecting their own mistaken beliefs onto their children. It becomes a family inheritance – passing on mistaken beliefs to the next generation (who would have preferred jewels and money).

Whatever you believe about yourself creates your reality. The two beliefs mentioned (as well as many, many more) create a reality that prohibits people from achieving healthy, strong self-esteem, and reaching their full potential. Whatever is good or loving that crosses their path will be sabotaged because it does not match up with the mistaken belief and therefore has to be rejected. These people will desire to have love and happiness in their life and may seem to be pursuing it, but at the end of the day they will end up shooting themselves in the foot because the underlying mistaken belief rules the day.

Memory blanks

People who have memory blanks of a year or several years during their childhood and who have several of the above symptoms may have repressed abuse memories. This usually happens when trauma experienced during childhood is so threatening that the child shuts off all memory of it as a coping mechanism.

(It is imperative to note that if someone has memory blanks but shows no symptoms of abuse, one should not feel obligated to search for memories of such events. If there are no symptoms, it is probably just a case of fairly uneventful incidences blurring into each other and appearing as a blank.)

One common experience for those with repressed abuse memories is that they will have strong emotional reactions to information concerning anything they actually experienced. Any one of us may hear about a horrible experience involving someone else and be moved or upset by it; that is natural. However, if someone has an over-the-top reaction, as though they are experiencing the event, it may indicate that they have experienced it at some time.

Additionally, there will sometimes be certain words that abuse survivors do not want to say or hear; behaviours that they cannot watch; or everyday events that they cannot bear, but do not know why. All of these may be connected with a previous abuse experience that their memory is blocking off.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive and compulsive behaviours or thought patterns are unconsciously created to provide a sense, or more accurately, an illusion of safety.

In the case of an abuse survivor, these behaviours may have been created during childhood in order to try to create some control in their environment. One example could be a small child who uses their internal resources for thought and reflection to consider how they can make life better or safer. They may conclude that placing a teddy bear at the foot of the bed will keep an abuser away. It doesn’t work, but it is comforting to be able to ‘do’ something. When the abuse continues, as long as the child can blame themselves, perhaps thinking they didn’t get the teddy bear in the right place, or that they should have put another toy there they then have the illusion of safety, believing that if they can “get it right” they can be safe. The reality is too terrifying to face: that there is nothing that can actually keep them safe.

This childhood strategy unconsciously carries on into adult life and various behaviours will be repeated in an attempt to feel safe. Seldom do people know why they are acting and thinking in these ways, and it can be very surprising for them to learn it is a childhood safety strategy that is no longer adaptive, but at the same time it helps make sense of their life.

PICT therapists utilise a resolution technique to address the feelings running the behaviour; this in turn releases the need for the illusion of safety.

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks may include many physical symptoms including difficulty breathing, heart palpitations; vision changes; sweating; shaking; nausea; feeling out of control, that something terrible is about to happen - often leading to a fear of dying.

Panic attacks may be triggered by a thought; smell; taste; sound; feeling, sensation or action that somehow reflects the abuse suffered in childhood, even when the survivor does not have a clue what that trigger might have been.

Some people who have not yet remembered abuse suffer from panic attacks and are confused about the cause. Panic attacks may seem like they appear from nowhere, but there is always a trigger.


Fear is a normal emotion and we need it for our survival. The anxious feelings created within us mean we can avoid taking unreasonable risks in order to keep us safe.

However, when a person is afraid of something that is not in reality dangerous, this is usually described as a phobia. Phobias do not normally appear nor disappear of their own accord. Typically common examples of phobic stimuli include heights, flying or specific animals.

Phobias may be a form of self-sabotage or self-punishment. They may be caused by an underlying feeling that “I am not worthy to enjoy life and if I cannot function properly then I will not enjoy life”.

Phobias can also be used as a distraction. When a person has a serious phobia to deal with, the fear of facing the deep emotional scarring of childhood abuse can be put off and not prioritised.

Individuals with a phobia can sometimes believe they are “being silly”. It is worth remembering that the existence of a phobia shows how effective the brain is at learning. Phobias are often the result of a singular learning experience and can be eliminated just as quickly as they were first established.

Parks Inner Child Therapy (PICT) can help update any incorrect information that may have been underpinning a phobia. PICT work incorporates several phobia-specific techniques which are quick and comfortable and can assist a person in removing phobias thoroughly and gently.

Relationship Problems

Childhood abuse, sometimes emotional abuse alone, can cause many symptoms including sexual dysfunction, inability to touch or trust, that in turn cause serious relationship problems.

Risk-taking (high or low)

Some people find they have a compulsion for ‘daring the fates’ and their work or social life may be a series of very high-risk-taking events.

Conversely, there are other people who lean in the opposite direction and find it impossible to take even the smallest risk.

Survivors of childhood abuse may choose an abusive or inadequate partner because damaged personalities feel more normal to them. This is because the experience of growing up in a dysfunctional family causes dysfunctional people to seem familiar, and it is only natural to be drawn to what is familiar. Equally, some people choose an inadequate partner as a result of believing that their own ‘unworthiness’ prohibits a partnership with a nice person.

Security seeking

In stressful situations some abuse survivors may physically hide or cower in a corner; they may also report feeling watched when no-one is around. They are usually hyper-vigilant and have a strong startle response to unexpected situations, which may be followed by anger or nervousness.

Self Harm

This is best described as hurting oneself deliberately, but generally without a desire to commit suicide. Methods of self-harm include cutting; burning; hitting or bruising; biting; pulling out hair, and less frequently, breaking bones. It is a method of coping with extreme emotional distress.

There are many reasons that people self-harm. Below is a typical (but not exhaustive) list of some of the typical reasons that people engage in self-harming behaviour:

  • A way of releasing anger. Some people feel that they cannot release anger to anyone, so they release it on the only person they have permission to hurt – themselves. The Trauma Resolution Experience (TRE) used in PICT is useful for enabling people to realise that they do have permission to be angry with their parents; it also gives them a specific vehicle to safely do so.
  • A way of demonstrating the level of emotional pain they are experiencing. Some people generally feel they are unimportant, not listened to or not believed. Self-harm is one way to say to others, “See how much pain I am in; help me!”
  • A way of releasing pain. Some people are so removed from their feelings that the only way they can release pain is to self-harm. It is their way of showing the depth of their pain to themselves. Physical pain from self-harm can also be a useful distraction from the sometimes even greater emotional pain that abuse survivors may feel.
  • A way of feeling that they have some power in their life. When someone feels an overall sense of powerlessness, they unconsciously take power over the only thing they have left - their self.
  • A way of punishing oneself. Many people who have experienced childhood abuse feel that whatever happened is their own fault, or that they made it happen in some way. This level of guilt can lead to self-punishment - self-harm is one way that people may carry it out.

Self-harming behaviours can become addictive, no matter what the underlying root cause or reason for use. In PICT, the client’s unconscious mind is utilised to go back to a time when the feelings that run the behaviour started, in order for full resolution to be accomplished.

Sexual Problems

Some people who were abused as children may be sexually repressed, while others may be promiscuous. Many lack accurate sexual knowledge and therefore do not have proper information about their bodily functions or sexual organs. They may have become frightened of their sexuality, or believe their bodies are dirty or shameful. Some have had many sexual experiences but have not shared love with those partners. Others may use sex as a way of gaining acceptance or as a manipulative tool. (Mistaken beliefs may be: I’m bad, dirty, ruined. I’m defective. I don’t count. I’m contaminated. I’m not important. I don’t deserve happiness.)

Sleeping Difficulties

Recurring nightmares are a common sleep disturbance amongst childhood abuse survivors. Insomnia is also a frequent experience; others may use excessive sleep as a form of escape or a method of coping.

Strong feelings of inadequacy

A belief of innate ‘badness’ or feelings of guilt and blame prohibit personal achievement; this may be followed by self-sabotage. An abuse survivor’s vocabulary may be full of “I can’t” statements.

Suicide attempts

People who have suffered abuse may see suicide as their only way out of the pain.

Until recent years there was very little help offered to adult survivors of childhood abuse. Some of those who displayed acute symptoms of abuse were judged mentally ill and sent for psychiatric treatment. As a result of not being understood, little help was forthcoming and patients did not receive the support that they needed.

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