The psychological impact of childhood trauma and abuse does not only depend on the type of trauma experienced, but differs as a result of a number of variables. The extent and nature of the impact varies from person to person. A number of reviews have estimated that between a third to half of all individuals who have experienced sexual abuse no longer exhibit adult psychiatric or psychological problems. It has been suggested that they can therefore be referred to as ‘resilient’ (Fergusson & Mullen, 1999; McGloin & Widom, 2001). Resilience has been used to describe behaviour, intellect, emotional well-being, social functioning or all of the above (Houshyar, 2005). A number of variables may influence how abuse has an impact, such as:
- the gender of the victim and perpetrator
- the type and severity of the abuse
- the duration of and time since the abuse
- bio-psychological factors (Futa, Nash, Hansen, & Garbin, 2003).
Other factors that consistently appear to be relevant include:
- Cognitive ability and personality factors: Research suggests that high self-esteem, internal locus of control, external attributions of blame, and individuals' coping strategies all predict more positive outcomes (see Collishaw et al., 2007).
- Family reactions and background: Research shows that the family's reaction following identification of the abuse and the general family environment can influence the long-term impact of abuse (Futa et al., 2003). Most studies suggest that the more sensitive, caring and safe the home environment, the more adaptive the outcome can be (Collishaw et al., 2007). A study of hundreds of University students who had experienced childhood abuse found that family characteristics (family conflict or cohesion) affected resilience in adult-life far more than the length or type of abuse (McClure, Chavez, Agars, Peacock, & Matosian, 2007).
- Supportive Relationships: Research has consistently shown that perceived social support buffers against poor mental health outcomes (Futa et al., 2003; Krause, Kaltman, Goodman, & Dutton, 2008). Social reactions to abuse experiences are related to trauma symptom severity (Ullman, Filipas, Townsend, & Starzynski, 2007). A study by Collishaw et al. (2007) found that those individuals with good relationship experiences across different domains and across childhood, adolescence and adulthood are prone to demonstrate resilience. Social support, both inside and outside the nuclear family can facilitate recovery from trauma (Lauterbach, Koch, & Porter, 2007). The ability to find supportive relationships outside of the family helps overcome the sequelae of abuse (Lauterbach et al., 2007). The availability of emotional support at the time of the abuse strengthens a person's ability to elicit support in adulthood, engendering resilient functioning. (Collishaw et al., 2007).
Studies considering the long-term outcomes for adults abused as children have identified factors associated with an increased likelihood of a negative outcome (risk factors) and those that are associated with a decreased likelihood of negative outcomes (protective factors) (Foley et al., 2000).
Protective factors include:
- personality, having a good sense of humour, a strong intellect or an active imagination (Pickering, Farmer, & McGuffin, 2004).
- genetic; a biological tendency not to develop depressive or stress disorders.
- features of a child’s environment; such as a loving family, a strong community or good teachers (Collishaw et al., 2007; Jaffee, Caspi, & Moffitt, 2004).