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The Long-Term Impact of Child Abuse:

Its effects on mothering and self-esteem.

In my psychotherapy practice, I work with adult women recovering from abuse including childhood emotional, physical, sexual abuse, and neglect. Many of these women are mothers seeking therapy out of a desire to protect their children from the abuses they themselves have experienced. My clients describe having difficulties caring for and meeting the needs of their children, and although they want to mother in more loving and appropriate ways, they express feelings of inadequacy in their mothering. They speak of an inability to feel spontaneous, to laugh and play, or to show affection to their children, and they grieve that their past experiences are impacting their ability to be effective mothers.

I also work with women who have made a conscious decision not to become mothers. Even though many of these women have stated that they love children, they have vowed not to have any. They say they do not believe that they are emotionally capable of being “a good mother” and that having a child would be a selfish act. They speak of being terrified of “messing up” or “screwing up” their children, and are fearful of passing down their pain to the next generation. They do not want to bring children into the world, only to have them experience the same hurts they had experienced when young. Finally, they express the fear that they may not be able to protect their children from abuse or keep them safe. This group of women mourn not having children and deeply feel the loss of not having a mothering experience during their lifetime.

Clients have stated that they felt the existence of emotional barriers that reduced their capacity to be loved and to express love in healthy ways. They felt overwhelmed and did not know how to set healthy boundaries, seeing themselves vacillating between being overly rigid and/or overly permissive with others. Even more important, they did not know how to protect themselves or their children. Some women talked about feeling numb or “zombie like.” Many felt they were minimally functioning and struggled with caring for their own basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Some women expressed feeling dead inside and unable to feel joy, to laugh or smile, or to feel positive for long enough to penetrate their numbed existence and to give life meaning.

For a child, feeling numb is a defense, used to cope with dysfunctional dynamics at home. Going emotionally numb helps to screen out the yelling, hurtful comments, scenes of domestic violence, abuse, and/or manage the experiences associated with poverty. Yet, for an adult, continuing to use defense mechanisms such as numbness, denial, and dissociation is unhealthy and interferes with day-to-day functioning.

On the first night of one sexual abuse survivor’s group, a woman said that her goal for therapy was to “feel something, to feel anything.” She did not care if it was sadness or fear or anger; she just wanted to feel. She was tired of her numbness, which she felt separated her from others and from the world. One mother in the group said her numbed state was impacting her ability to care for her children. She was unable to play, laugh, join in games, and be spontaneous or to hug and kiss her children without images of her own abuse coming to the surface.

When I facilitate a sexual abuse survivor’s group, on the first night we meet, the women introduce themselves and I ask the question, "How did the sexual abuse impact your life?” Participants are asked to brainstorm words that best describe how they believe the child sexual abuse has affected them. The list is always quite long and for many women, this is the first time they have had an opportunity to speak about and reveal long-held secrets while in an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance. Below is a list of words and phrases generated by group members that describes and captures the ways in which child sexual abuse has impacted their adult lives:

low self-esteem - self-hatred - problems with intimacy mistrustful - uncomfortable in their bodies - worthless - uncomfortable being visible - emotionally needy - anxiety - problems with boundaries - depression - alcohol addiction - drug addiction - problems with anger - fearful - unlovable - dirty - damaged goods - easily irritated - problems with setting limits - unprotected - gullible - people pleasers - put others first - fearful of authority - intimidated easily - socially awkward

My clients chose to go into therapy because they were struggling from the consequences and symptoms associated with the long-term impact of abuse. They believed that their past had followed them into their current lives and was negatively impacting their ability to function in their families, friendships, and work environments. The women wanted to break negative behaviors, thought patterns, and defenses that at one time had helped them manage the dysfunction and violence they experienced as children but no longer worked for them as adults. Many of my clients endured their child abuse alone and as adults they are reaching out for support in order to heal.


Excerpt From:

Gil, T. (2018). Women Who Were Sexually Abused as Children: Mothering. Resilience, and Protecting the Next Generation. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

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