Experiencing childhood abuse can lead to complex behavioral patterns in adulthood.

Think back to elementary school and imagine you went from first to fifth grade, skipping second through fourth. Would you have been able to understand fractions without learning division? What about other subjects? How would you have fared without the building blocks established in those middle grades?

Emotional and psychological development progresses a lot like elementary school. A solid foundation is essential for developing decision-making and problem-solving skills, thought processes and memory. But, as school years build upon concepts learned in previous years, so too does cognitive evolution.

“Human development occurs in cognitive and psychological stages, and one stage must lead to another,” said T’Saki Lawson, MD, psychiatrist and director of the senior life geriatric psychiatric program at Parkridge Valley Hospital. “For such a progression to occur without too much disruption, the child should be able to experience an environment that is very supportive and can nurture the child’s progression from one stage to the next. When a child experiences neglect or abuse, there is no opportunity for psychological or cognitive development to progress logically without disruption.”

How Development Stalls

Delays in cognitive and psychological growth can occur as early as infancy, Dr. Lawson noted, and the effects can last a lifetime.

“Before children develop language to express themselves, they cry,” he said. “Crying is their only way of expressing a need. Babies are completely dependent upon their parents to decipher their crying and act. Inattentive parents do not care, and their children will cry and cry because of unmet needs.”

Children who survive such neglect learn an important and crippling lesson: No matter what I do, my needs cannot be met, and I cannot trust others to care for me.

“The foundation does not have to be rock solid; it only has to be strong enough for us to add the next layer without crumbling.”

That lesson forms an insufficient foundation upon which neglected children build relationship skills. Such children may become extremely independent and try to do everything themselves. Others may become aggressive or impulsive and take everything that is not given to them.

The mildest form of this behavior is acting before thinking. Adults who have been abused may have problems managing money, or they may have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships with family, partners and friends. Sometimes, such adults find it hard to empathize with others and may develop narcissistic tendencies that arise out of the perceived need to take care of themselves first and foremost.

Identifying the Problem

Because cognitive and psychological development progresses in stages that build upon one another, it is possible for people to be delayed at one stage but receive the nurturing and encouragement in other areas to progress to the next developmental stage. Although abuse significantly affects the way people interact with others, those who experience abusive relationships use coping mechanisms to hide developmental deficiencies.

For example, children who grew up in an abusive environment but then left the house for college and received the support and encouragement necessary to succeed in life may become extremely successful in many aspects of life. However, the effects of their childhood experience will likely appear in another area of their lives, such as how they handle personal relationships.

“Because the environment changes as we grow older and progress through life, people may experience a neglectful or abusive environment as children but progress through more supportive periods,” Dr. Lawson said. “Abused or neglected children can master ways to mask deficiencies, but the better they get at hiding those traits, the more challenging it is to identify the root cause.”

Addressing the Problem

A person who has experienced abuse can become successful because he or she has learned appropriate ways to balance a tendency toward impulsive or hurtful behavior against acceptable ways of behaving in society. In psychology, this is known as adjustment, but although the individual may appear successful, there may be one or more areas in which he or she has not been able to adjust. That is where therapy comes in.

“The highest form of therapy is to help the person understand the problem, which is giving the person insight [known as insight therapy],” Dr. Lawson said. “Through therapy sessions, the psychiatrist and patient use that insight to bring about change. Those discussions help identify the problem area, which may be a damaging pattern that emerges through discussing a person’s relationships. By understanding that problem, the patient develops the tools to solve it.”

However, some people are not capable of attaining insight. Through other forms of treatment, such as interpersonal therapy, those patients are able to pinpoint and improve upon problem areas in relationships. Even though the root cause is not identified, interpersonal therapy can be greatly beneficial.

There are many other therapeutic techniques available for adults who have been abused or neglected, and all of them may be used to help people gain insight into specific areas that continue to be problematic.

Dr. Lawson and the psychiatrists at Parkridge Valley Hospital can help adults who struggle with the lingering effects of childhood abuse identify the problem areas and work on strategies to improve those aspects of their lives.

If you would like to speak with Dr. Lawson about your experience with abuse, please call (423) 629-5524 to make an appointment.