Childhood Abuse Damages Our Adult Relationships

E.B. Johnson

Your abusive childhood is setting you up for failure in your adult relationships. It’s not as straight-forward as “you date your parents” either. That’s a blanket statement that we like to throw out there in order to gloss over the truth. And the truth is, childhood trauma and dysfunction damages us in ways we could never imagine. When you were abused by those you trusted most, they set you up for failure as an adult. Worse than that, they set you up for failure in all your relationships moving forward, which is a heartbreaking story all on its own.

Early abuse sets us up for a bad adulthood.

The childhood experience is not one that is isolated from our adult one — though it’s often more convenient to pretend otherwise. We like to imagine that the emotions of a child differ from that of our adult body; that they are removed in a way that makes their experience mores different from our own. But that’s simply not the case. The childhood you have reflects the inner adult life you will lead. When you are a child of dysfunction, this guarantees you more of the same.

That’s because those who are raised in abusive or toxic environments are made more likely to be abused in their own adult lives. Our parents and caretakers set us up for toxic patterns, and set up to have corrosive and toxic relationships later on in life. Whatever we teach a child about themselves is how they come to see themselves as adults.

Children who are taught to fear and hate themselves carry those beliefs far into their golden years (and beyond). The insecurities undermine their ability to connect deeply with others, and the hangups and cognitive damage can make it almost impossible to function in any effective way. Were you the child of abuse? Did your home life resemble more of a cosmic tragedy than a warm and fuzzy holiday film? Living a better life is possible, but it comes only after a great deal of work and self-acknowledgement.

How adult relationships are changed by childhood abuse.

The abuse and neglect we experience in childhood are directly linked to the struggles we face in our adult relationships. Trauma damages the childhood brain. And all those dark experiences? They become lessons that the child internalizes and carries into adulthood. If you were the victim of these adverse childhood experiences, then you can struggle trusting, reacting, and even connecting on deep and genuine levels.

Serious cognitive upset

Trauma isn’t just some buzzword. It’s not an excuse for staying in your victimhood, either. No. It’s very real. Trauma is literal brain damage. It causes damage to various parts of the brain, and can affect everything from speech to motor skills, and interpersonal relationship skills, too. As a matter of fact, victims of trauma were shown to have higher incidences of disorders like ADD and ADHD. Have you ever lived with an ADD partner? It’s a challenge to the relationship and your long-term future together.

Creating insecurity

Childhood trauma comes with some major insecurities. Not only do you become insecure in your relationship with those who hurt you. You also become insecure in yourself and the way you attach to partners. Ever heard of avoidant attachment? Insecure attachment? It often starts here — rooted in childhood upset and dysfunction that puts us on a collision course with disappointment and heartache.

Lack of trust

Abuse and uncertainty in childhood are one of the primary factors that make it hard for us to trust in adulthood. How can you trust someone who is essentially a stranger when the people who brought you into this world routinely hurt you? Coming back and rebuilding our ability to trust is a long road that start by realizing that security no longer comes from our family. It comes from inside us before anything else.

Dysfunctional behaviors

We learn warped behaviors when we’re raised in the throes of a toxic or dysfunctional environment. We watch our caretakers act and react within their intimate relationships, and we follow suit. These warped behaviors (like cheating, manipulation, and abuse) build up over time and become facets of our personality and understanding. Divisions are created and resentment becomes the norm. There’s no building healthy in that environment.

Building dark patterns

Children subjected to abuse and harm come to develop dark patterns of their own. These patterns include their relationships and the quality of the partners they select for themselves. Many cycle through the same terrible relationships over-and-over again. They settle for less than you deserve, or settle for toxic and abusive partners that mirror the environments they became acclimated to.

Separating self

You are forced to separate from your authentic self when you’re the child of trauma and dysfunction. It’s not safe to be who you really are. That child gets punished by disapproving parents. That child can also become a victim or object of desire to predators. So we learn not to be ourselves, and we learn to mold ourselves into whatever form doesn’t get us screamed at or hit. In the scheme of our relationships, this lands us with the wrong partners and chasing the wrong things.

Missing expectations

The victim of childhood abuse and neglect is often a person who clings to expectations. Maybe they were handed impossibly high expectations of themselves. Or maybe they are still trying to win approval from the parents and siblings who never really loved them. Either way, you set yourself up for failure when you set impossible expectations or try to live up to someone else’s idea of what your happiness should look like.

How to recover from childhood abuse in adulthood.

Do you want to stop the shadows from treading over your future? While we aren’t responsible for the pain that’s caused to us, we are responsible for healing and pursuing our greater sense of peace and meaning. Doing that, however, asks that we start from a place of acceptance and embrace our inner child. Seek the support you need and build a more authentic life for yourself from the inside out.

1. Accept where you came from

One of the hardest struggles adult-children of abuse face is acceptance. When you are injured that deeply, it’s hard to accept. You disassociate from the events in order not to feel the pain of them. Buried away, they burst forward to the surface whenever we face similar frustrations in life. This turns into toxic emotional cycles and patterns that hold us back. We have to accept what happened to us (and the cost of it) in order to heal effectively.

Start from a place of acceptance, both with yourself and with your past. Accept what happened to you. Accept what they did and who they were. All of those things are behind you. And the only thing immovable is their actions. You still have the ability to be free; to heal and find that sense of love and connection you’ve been craving.

Acceptance takes time. Do not rush this step. It may take days, weeks, months. In truth, it never really ends. We peel back the layers on our memories, and each time we do, we discover new truths. Processing these truths requires looking at them honestly and allowing them to be a part of who we are without becoming who we are. These things happened to you. They do not define you. As an adult, you have a chance to do that right here and right now. Reinvent who you are by accepting what was in your childhood.

2. Don't avoid professional help

There’s no denying the extensive damage that’s caused by childhood abuse and neglect. These adverse experiences add up. It’s not simply a matter of emotional damage (though that’s pretty dang bad). When we are damaged and made to feel afraid and unstable in childhood, it creates literal brain damage. Perhaps worst of all, it affects our cognitive function and our executive function in ways that upset our lives and the lives of our partners and families.

Overcoming this actual damage requires that we seek more knowledge and more support. Talking to a bestie and writing in your journal for a month or two on New Year will not cut it. You need professional help. So, if you’re lucky enough to have access to that luxury — you must take advantage of it. Find a therapist, counselor, or coach who has experience in the level of trauma you’re confronting. Lean on them. Use their tools to kick-start an alternative path and a new sense of understanding for yourself.

3. Reach out to your inner child

There are a lot of unique phrases we use for the “inner child”. You can call it the shadow self, or your dark side. Some people simply bury it as a “past” they don’t talk about. However you choose to label it, this is the part of yourself that has been hurt. It’s that injured sense of self that you hide, that you struggle to be vulnerable with. This part of ourselves has to be incorporated into our lives for us to truly come to a point where we can define our peace.

Embrace your inner child and bring them into the fold of your love. All those years of being discarded? Discounted? Used? Maimed? It ends. Now is your chance to become the parent they always deserved. Now is the moment to give them the life they always dreamed of in those days of tears and fear.

Bring your inner child out into the open. Nurture that innocent and bright side of yourself again. Remember what it means to have fun. Reconnect with the simple joys and those experiences that put you back into the happy days of your childhood. Even in all that darkness, we can find bright lights to cling to. And this is the space we reconnect with our inner child in. Allow them to return that sense of fun and that sense of hope to your life. When inner children are embraced, we find a new spark to our future.

Putting it all together…

Adults raised in abusive or extremely dysfunctional environments struggle throughout their lives, but this principle is most on display in their close relationships. Being raised in abuse teaches you not to trust and not to open up. You learn from an early age to hide yourself and please others around you in order to be safe. And that’s a dangerous pattern to set when it comes to picking partners and settling down to build a life.

In order for adult survivors of childhood abuse to heal, they first have to accept what happened to them and accept how it has changed them. That’s the starting point that allows us to move toward a more authentic understanding of ourselves. Then we can get professional help and start actively addressing the pain points that are keeping us small and in bad partnerships. Our inner child is free to be embraced at that point. And when this happens, we are even more open to honesty and vulnerability. Have patience and be soft with yourself. Mistakes will happen, but change is still occurring. Let it.

  • Danese, A., & van Harmelen, A. (2017). The hidden wounds of childhood trauma. European Journal Of Psychotraumatology, 8(sup7), 1375840. doi: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1375840

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Writer. Host. Certified coach. Host of the Practical Growth Pod. Master Practitioner NLP. Get all my books and resources at the link below.

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