Self Esteem Damages in Abused Children

Abused children quite often suffer from damaged or very low self esteem in addition to the other myriad of post-trauma symptoms and negative behaviors. Treatment of these children often targets the overt behaviors that many post abuse children have: oppositional behaviors, acting out behaviors that include anger and rage, fight and flight, and quite possibly intense focus difficulties and bullying other children. Other children may have more internalized post trauma behaviors that include extreme shyness and social awkwardness, as well as very strained self-confidence in their abilities. In either case, the abused child struggles to attain a healthy self esteem, and needs assistance to do so.

All forms of child abuse negatively impact a growing child’s sense of their own value; neglect, physical and sexual abuse, while having subtle differences in effect, has low self esteem impacts in common. The effect of neglect on a child clearly conveys that the child is not as valued and as important as they should be to the caregiver. By the time the child is school age (Kindergarten), the child has come to the intellectual level to be able to discern the differences in how families function by observing other children and their parents. The neglected child is able to see that not all parents pay so little attention to their child’s needs; by comparison, the neglected child begins to consider why this is so. Inevitably, one stand out conclusion is that they themselves are not worth of such love and care from their caregiver.

Physical abuse produces low self esteem due to the very physicality of the abuse. Children are tiny compared to adults, and really have no hope of fighting back (physically) in any way that is genuinely effective at protecting themselves. This kind of violation of one’s body creates a sense of helplessness, and, in the case of repeated physical abuse, hopelessness as well. Cultural meta-learning teaches everyone at a very young age that we have the right and responsibility to defend ourselves against wrongs, and if we do not, we are weak, ineffective, and less than perfect. So what happens to one’s self image when the person who is wronging you is a loved caregiver? Confusion happens. If my caregiver loves me, and I love my caregiver, but my caregiver is hitting, punching, or throwing me, it must mean that there is something that I am doing wrong, or, there is something terribly wrong with me at a very basic level. I am bad. In addition, a kind of guilt feeling arises surrounding the child’s inability to protect themselves from the abuse. Out of these emotions, an intense feeling of being different from other children and the need to hide the facts surrounding the negative emotions begins to flow.

Sexual abuse of children may or may not involve actual penetration, but the abuse is often designed to be leading up to this goal for the perpetrator. While not all victims of sexual abuse react the same way at the time of the abuse (that is an exploration for another article), the eventual effect of the abuse will always serve to severely damage the child’s self-view and self esteem. Once again, depending on the age of the child, the victim will at some point have an epiphany that informs them that not every child is having sex with an adult. And also once again, the confused thoughts and emotions will ensue. The resulting cognitive dissonance of knowing that other children are not having sex with adults, but they are destroys the perpetrator induced myth that the sex is somehow an expression of love, or a punishment for misdeeds. The child begins to feel intensely different from peers, and begins the shame based hiding procedures.

And, should penetration occur in the sexual abuse, there is the added burden of deep psychological changes that accompany this fact. Since in the developing child’s mind (and to a lesser degree, in adults mind as well), their body is in essence who they are, when another person can enter their body at any time, the sense of personal integrity is shattered.

How these effects translate into longer term self esteem issues deserves a more extensive study and analysis. The work of William B. Swann, Jr. in the area of how the mechanisms of self-verification work are a notable such study. Swann found that in many replications of experiments there is little doubt that people with negative self-views seek out unfavorable feedback from people that they understand will confirm their low self esteem. He found that low self esteem people even prefer to interact with self-verifying partners when presented with the alternative of interacting with someone who builds them up. In addition, when low self esteem people begin to receive positive feedback that is not matching their self verifying low self esteem, they may become anxious, disoriented, experiencing a sense of emptiness, and increased worthlessness. The person with low self esteem will tend to recall only the reflections or affirmations of their own low self esteem issues in an interaction, and discount any of the positives that have been presented. (Swann, 1997)

This illustrates just how powerful the cycle of abuse related low self esteem is; and most children who experience abuse experience multiple critical events at the hands of their perpetrator. Once the perpetrator has established the belief in the victim that the victim is powerless, not worthy, less than valued and loved, and an oddity in a normal world, the perpetrator can achieve near complete control.

Should an ‘outside’ opinion be naively (meaning from someone not privy to the abuse occurring) presented to the abused child, it may be discounted by the child. In the child’s mind, the person forwarding such an opinion simply does not know all the facts as the child understands them: that the child is bad and worthless. Since the caregiver is so close to the child, often a biological parent, that opinion will always outweigh other opinions. This is not only due to the reinforcing effect in low self esteem, but because there is an intense loyalty in all children when it comes to their parents. In the child’s mind, they must always strive hard and ceaselessly to convert themselves into the ‘good child’ for the disapproving, abusive parent. Changing loyalty, for any child is difficult, but all the more so for the abused child, who trusts their parent’s opinion that they are bad, worthless, and do not deserve any compliments.

This has grave implications for treatment providers who are trying to help children to overcome their low self esteem and stopping the negative self-verifications: trying to ‘build up’ and recognize the positives in the child may essentially backfire. The child simply cannot tolerate any view of themselves that does not match their own, and will discount the helper’s view. They may even reject the helper, because the helper, by pressing the positives, is pressing on the child’s loyalty button concerning the abusive parent. This is an effect that anyone who has worked with abused children is well aware of and frustrated by.

The negative self-esteem and negative self verifications that abused children engage in are key features blocking the child’s healing and age normative growth and development. Left unattended to, they do not fade, but become ensconced in the child’s self view on into adolescence and adulthood. This in turn, gives fuel for the cycle to repeat with their own children. New methodologies, based in more complete research and knowledge on the mechanics of self esteem are begging to be developed.

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Comments 18 comments

jessi 8 years ago

when was this posted


krillco profile image

krillco 8 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA Author

2/20/08...why?


jam 7 years ago

when an 8 yr old kills his father and friend there must be something very,very wrong.this child could not just decide to kill for no reason.that dosent make sense.there had to be something going on that no one knew about. god bless this child.


Crystal 7 years ago

I was abused when I was younger and I still have self esteem issues to this day. When you are abused it never goes away, its allways with you till the day you die I should know . I've been to counclers and the abuse and all the feelings come back anyway. For years I was jelous of other kids cause they had a normal chidhood,I didn't.


Sam 6 years ago

I went thru same abuse but it was physical beating by my mom. She was good with me but when she would get angry she would shout on me and beat me like a hell. I have been beaten many times harshly. I did not have normal childhood and I can feel racing thoughts and loss of concentration. I lack confidence and never felt good about myself. I did not have money to go to counsellor as I am jobless, but I do remind 11 times a day, " Whatever happened with me was not my fault, I was not responsible. No mater how bad my mom behaved, my self worth and value remains same". I trust on god and say to God, " I trust you". I hope this helps to you too. Thank you.


spiritboy 5 years ago

my mom was very abusive and still is to this day, im 41 now and i have confronted her last year and she still believes that she did not do anything wrong. i can't believe this behavior from her, she is an educated woman to. it would seem that she should be more self aware. i do not talk to her to this day, and i feel much better about my self with her not in my life.


Janae 5 years ago

Great article. I just had to take my niece to a mental health unit because of long term abuse. I strongly believe that the damage to a childs self esteem is horrific. Thank you for posting to make others aware of the effects of abuse.


Aimee1 5 years ago

I like how this article mentioned neglect as a form of abuse because it is. I was a victim of physical and severe emotional abuse as a child and teenager by my father. It has definitely affected my self-esteem as an adult. Also, my relationships with men have been affected.

I have a child now and make sure I am very careful and have sought counseling to help me. I feel it is so important to be a good parent. I love my child and would never even think of laying a hand on my child or putting him down in any way shape or form. I would recommend counseling to anyone who has been a victim of abuse.

I wanted to mention I have an issue with co-dependence also because with my experience it has lead to continue the cycle of abuse.


weng 5 years ago

what is your APA citation?can i have it for my thesis? thanks


jackie 4 years ago

what's co-depedence mean?


Tabitha Steward 4 years ago

It hurts when neither of your parents show you love, put you down, hit you, mentally exhaust you.

I have been severely beaten as a kid and feel no self worth. I want help and have been trying any form of self help possible.

All I want in life is to be able to live a normal life. And I was the kind of girl any parent would have wanted, studious, kind, an artist, dreamer, progressive, and smart. But now even though I have tons of talent and can do almost anything my mind discounts all my ablities as worthless. Its rare that I find enough motivation to finish anything although I can really do a great job.

I understand that both of my parents were abused by one or both parents but it still isn't an excuse.

I do not think I'll ever be healthy enough to raise my own children so I have not been seeking a partner nor will I have kids. I am 27 now :/

Is there anything that can help one restore self worth? I find the only thing that works is working myself near to death. To feel useful and happy that I am making a difference someway somehow.

I know this isn't healthy but its very very difficult for me to be happy. I have lost the ability to love. And Just wish to be normal.

Is there anything I can do to feel happy just being me?


krillco profile image

krillco 4 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA Author

My heart aches for you, Tabitha. And yes, there is a way for you to learn to be happy just being you, and you have great love to share with a special someone and a child, if you would so choose. A good friend, Michele Rosenthal (healmyptsd.com), taught me that each person must find their own path to healing...you CAN do this, if you choose. A good, qualified therapist can help. Prayers to you, Tabitha, that you can find your healing path.


Inspin 4 years ago

I agree with everything this article has said. I stood loyal to the ones who hurt me because they had complete control over me. A child can not fight his or her abuser . They are afraid, they are small, and they are confused! So they learn to adapt to survive. All they know about "family" is what they see in there household. But as they get older they learn that family doesn't hurt you. Family doesn't make you feel dirty and ashamed.so they learn right from wrong but by then there users a real life monster in there eyes. And what kid wants to stand up to a monster?? In the end It turns into a dirty little secret or justice for the kid. But every victim of child abuse suffers from low self-esteem and all the symptoms listed above in the article.


Solidarity 4 years ago

Thanks to everyone for sharing their experiences and thoughts on this post. I too was severely abused physically and mentally throughout my childhood and adolescent period. It started when I was 4, my dad would beat my head in pretty bad and cuss me out. Anyways, he believes he has done nothing wrong and I get a surge of mixed emotions but I realize that people like him aren't even human. When I observe other normal families I realize just how wrong my upbringing was. This helps to make me feel that I am okay and not fundamentally a bad person.

Growing up afraid, angry, nervous, with low self esteem and a constant feeling of dread is no proper way to grow up. All of the bad decisions I made as a youth because of my distorted mindset...so many bad memories, so much pain. But I hope everyone here knows that they are not a bad person...and that they can rebuild their lives independent from the terrible people who raised them. Although its a struggle its comforting to know that others out there can be so positive despite what they've been through. God bless.


ctgibson 4 years ago

Thank you for this article, it was so helpful. As an educator, I have often been dumbfounded by the consistent poor choices made by intelligent students that I have worked with. It all makes sense now. It actually has seemed to me lately that whenever the good marks from hard work start showing up, the low self-esteem student immediately starts cutting class and getting into trouble. The pushback was sort of inexplicable until now.


BobMitch 4 years ago

It doesn't seem like anyone comes in here anymore. Child abuse and it's effects are something that do last a life time, without any choice on our part. For me, I feel useless, I feel like I'm a freak, I have no self-esteem. I have nothing. I am almost emotionless...nothing makes me happy and I have a feeling nothing ever will. I keep hoping for a change, I pray a lot but nothing really "takes it all back." I'm getting old so there isn't a whole lot of time left so I figure why bother.


krillco profile image

krillco 4 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA Author

Sorry to hear of your difficulties, Bob. Healing and recovery; moving from victim to survivor is possible. I encourage you to visit my website (Gentling.org) and get to the link I have on a workbook for adults and teens who have survived child abuse and want to heal.


Rodric29 profile image

Rodric29 20 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Thanks for this article. I experience abuse from family members and family friends and you described me! I am still fighting the self-hating tapes that run through my head. It is an uphill battle, but I feel like I am winning.

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