Understanding how the prevalence of child abuse worldwide is shaping adult trauma
Child abuse is a horribly painful subject to speak or even think about. For most parents, the idea of subjecting a child to violence, maltreatment, or neglect is unthinkable. Even adults who do not have children find this notion deeply upsetting, even frightening.
Yet, child abuse happens with more regularity than we might imagine. According to data from the World Health Organization, it is estimated that up to 1 billion children aged 2-17 years experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in 2020 alone.
This week, we will explore the painful subject of child abuse and how it relates to adult trauma. In this blog, I will detail some of the known statistics and research on child abuse around the world and explain why these dreadful instances of abuse are so often at the root of mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders later in life.
Child Abuse Around The World
In 2020, the World Health Organization published reports on child maltreatment and violence against children across the globe. The findings from these reports point to child abuse being a widespread problem that affects a shocking number of young people of all ages, nationalities, and genders.
Very young children, for example, are subjected to physical and/or psychological violence at the hands of their parents or caregivers with alarming regularity: the WHO reports that this happens to nearly 3 in 4 children between the ages of 2 and 4. That is 300 million children worldwide who are experiencing violence at the hands of an adult they must rely on to live.
Some other startling facts from these reports include:
- One in 5 women and 1 in 13 men report having been sexually abused as a child aged 0-17.
- One hundred and twenty million girls and young women under the age of 20 have suffered some form of forced sexual contact.
- A child who is abused is significantly more likely to abuse others as an adult.
Another study conducted a systematic review of child sexual abuse worldwide over the past 50 years. This research concluded that 9 girls and 3 boys out of every 100 have been victims of forced intercourse. Though it may be upsetting to consider, we must face the fact that child abuse is happening everywhere if we wish to provide treatment, care, and support for victims in order to break the cycle of abuse. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and the young people in our lives to look directly at how child abuse influences adult behavior and experiences later in life.
How Child Abuse Becomes Adult Trauma
We have all been children, and we can all remember how strange it was to be new in the world. As babies grow into toddlers and children become adolescents, they gain new knowledge at every turn and acquire new skills to match. The brain is constantly developing, taking in information from the world like a sponge as bodies shift and grow in sudden and surprising bursts.
All of these changes make childhood an extremely vulnerable time; young people are not always able – either mentally, physically, or emotionally – to assess risk, provide for or even understand their own needs, or accurately judge the character of others. This is why our family and social structures are designed to allow adults to provide care, boundaries, safety, and comfort for children as they grow. Thus, the children in our lives learn to trust us, and most of us try our best to keep them safe.
Abuse of children violates the sanctity of that trust. This, in part, is what makes it so difficult to talk about: to abuse a child is not only to physically, emotionally, or sexually harm them, but it is also to take advantage of and ultimately break their trust. Psychologically, this is often what lingers in the mind and body of abused children who grow into adults. Trauma is held not simply because of the hurt that these young people experienced but because of the way in which their trust was shattered at such a young age.
Research published just last month details the degree to which child abuse is linked to adult trauma. According to researchers, there was a consistent and strong association between child sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder in childhood, adolescense, and adulthood. What’s more, this was true irrespective of geographic location or gender.
In his landmark work The Body Keeps the Score, trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk writes that the effects of trauma are often worse for children. The fact that children are unable to escape from abuse and neglect means that they cannot mentally rationalize or separate their abuser’s behavior from their own and are more likely to internalize blame and hurt. Because their abuser is often a trusted adult, children frequently feel a strong loyalty towards them in spite of the abuse.
What’s more, according to van der Kolk, cries for help are often missed or misunderstood by adults or other children because children have not yet learned how to communicate situations articulately or delicately or may not yet have the cognitive or emotional ability to understand the abuse enough to speak about it. As a result, abuse goes unnoticed, and the resulting trauma significantly disrupts the development of attachment – the ability to form healthy relationships – and attunement – the way in which the body adapts to cues from others.
In order to prevent child abuse, we must first be able to speak about it. Recognizing the prevalence of this horrible and frightening phenomenon in our communities is the first step to being able to remove children from abusive situations and provide them with support and treatment. Only then can we begin to address the trauma that is at the root of so many adult mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders.
If you suspect child abuse, or if you know a child who is being abused, it is imperative that you reach out for help. Below are a list of helplines and websites to report and better recognize child abuse, both in the USA and worldwide.
 World Health Organization, (2020). Violence against children. Key facts. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/child-maltreatment
 World Health Organization, (2020). Child maltreatment: Key facts. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/child-maltreatment
 Barth, J., Bermetz, L., Heim, E., Trelle, S., & Tonia, T. (2013). The current prevalence of child sexual abuse worldwide: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International journal of public health, 58(3), 469–483. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00038-012-0426-1
 Boumpa, V., Papatoukaki, A., Kourti, A., Mintzia, S., Panagouli, E., Bacopoulou, F., Psaltopoulou, T., Spiliopoulou, C., Tsolia, M., Sergentanis, T. N., & Tsitsika, A. (2022). Sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 10.1007/s00787-022-02015-5. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-022-02015-5
 van der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps The Score. Viking Press.