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  • Brittany Montes, Psy. D.

Childhood Abuse and Self-Concept

Childhood abuse has long been a “hot topic” in both society and the field of clinical psychology. Research has begun to focus heavily on the effects of childhood abuse on the child and his or her development across the lifespan. More often than not, these studies have shown that children who suffered from childhood abuse also suffered significant negative impacts on their development and functioning. Research is also shedding light on the importance of self-concept in a child’s development and growth toward adulthood.

The effects of childhood abuse

Childhood Abuse

Literature often divides childhood abuse into four broad categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional and psychological abuse, and neglect. The definition for each of these categories often varies depending upon the professional context in which one is working (i.e. legal settings, social-work settings, medical settings, etc.). Additionally, it often becomes difficult to delineate between one form of abuse (such as neglect) and other forms (e.g. emotional abuse) when, in fact, several abusive practices overlap conceptually. As such, it has become difficult for research studies to generalize across areas as they often utilize slightly different definitions of each form of abuse.

Child Help (2012) finds that over 3 million child abuse reports are made each year in the United States and that these reports often include multiple children. Specifically, approximately 3.3 million reports concerning child abuse were made in 2009. These reports involved approximately 6 million children in the United States alone (Child Help, 2012). These statistics do not account for the children suffering from abuse who go unnoticed. Therefore, it is likely that these statistics underestimate the true number of children suffering from childhood abuse on a daily basis. As such, it is becoming vitally important to understand childhood abuse and its effects so that adults can better recognize and help these children.


Self-concept has been widely researched and applied to a broad range of clinical areas. This is not surprising given the fact that one’s self-concept affects nearly every aspect of functioning in one’s daily life. Additionally, nearly every experience that one has serves to shape and form one’s self-concept. Hopefully, these experiences provide one with a positive self-concept. However, all too often, these experiences affect self-concept in a negative fashion. One such experience is that of childhood abuse. Those who suffer from and attempt to cope with childhood abuse tend to have a lower self-concept; however, one must first understand self-concept before examining how such experiences shape it.

Reeve (2009) defines self-concept as “individuals’ mental representations of themselves” (p. 268). These representations are derived from one’s experiences as well as one’s reflections on said experiences. Reeve (2009) also went on to describe the creation of self-concept in his statement “to construct a self-concept, people attend to the feedback they receive in their day-to-day affairs that reveals their personal attributes, characteristics and preferences. The building blocks people use to construct and define the self come from specific life experiences” (p. 268).

However, Reeve (2009) was quick to point out that individuals do not reflect upon and remember each of their individual life experiences. Rather, these experiences are combined and made into general conclusions, which ultimately translate into a general representation of the self (Reeve, 2009). Furthermore, it is these general representations of the self that individuals readily use in their construction and definition of their self-concept (Reeve, 2009). This definition provides a complex and yet simple view of the self-concept and its creation; specifically, self-concept ultimately derives from one’s general representations based upon one’s experiences.

Molloy et al. (2011) offer a similar definition of self-concept which states that it derives from “perceptions of one’s own competence” (p. 1589). Molloy et al. (2011) went on to discuss self-concept as a construct that may fluctuate as a result of reversible, rapid, and short-term processes. The self-concept may also incorporate others’ evaluations of oneself into one’s self-views (Malloy et al., 2011). This further demonstrates the complexity of this construct in that it not only includes one’s own experiences but also the views that others hold of one.

Finally, McAlpine and Shanks (2010) offer yet another definition of the self-concept. Their definition focuses on the various aspects of the self that center around various aspects and situations. Specifically, McAlpine and Shanks (2010) describe self-concept as being multifaceted with various self-aspects constructed according to different situations, roles, personality traits, mood states, and interactions with others. Like the previous definitions, McAlpine and Shanks (2010) present the definition of self-concept as being complex and variable based on surrounding conditions.

Childhood Abuse and its Effects on the Self-Concept

As stated previously, childhood abuse has profound effects on the child, his or her functioning in daily life, and his or her development. The field of clinical psychology is only just beginning to truly understand just how significant of an impact childhood abuse has on children and their families. One such area of impact is that of the self-concept and its development. Several research studies have shown that childhood abuse frequently negatively impacts self-concept and its development.

Bottoms et al. (2004) examined abuse relating to religion and abuse not relating to religion. Results indicated that abuse relating to religion and abuse not relating to religion did not differ in frequency of abuse, form of abuse, likelihood of disclosure, victim characteristics, and perpetrator characteristics (Bottoms et al., 2004). Additionally, researchers found that there were no differences between the groups in terms of the perceived importance of religion, self-concept, frequency of church attendance, frequency of prayer, and religious beliefs (Bottoms et al., 2004). However, both groups did demonstrate lower self-concepts when compared to children who had not experienced abuse (Bottoms et al., 2004). This indicates that while religion may be an important coping mechanism, it does not necessarily work to improve a damaged self-concept as a result of childhood abuse.

McAlpine and Shanks (2010) studied women with a history of childhood sexual abuse and how this experience affected their self-concept. Authors found that women with a history of childhood sexual abuse typically demonstrated a more negative self-concept (McAlpine & Shanks, 2010). Additionally, they found that women suffering from depression had a more negative self-concept when compared to a healthy population (McAlpine & Shanks, 2010). This study effectively demonstrates just how much various experiences can negatively affect self-concept in those already attempting to cope with traumatic experiences.

Finally, Scott, Burlingame, Starling, Porter, and Lily (2003) studied the effects of childhood sexual abuse in children as well as the effectiveness of play therapy in working with these children. Researchers found that sexually abused children tended to display lower self-esteem and a poorer self-concept than children without such experiences (Scott et al., 2003). Additionally, researchers found that play therapy resulted in some improvements in self-concept, though these results were not significant (Scott et al., 2003). Thus, it is likely safe to assume that the negative consequences caused by childhood sexual abuse are difficult to overcome and self-concept likely takes time to build and grow after such experiences.

In sum, childhood abuse has a far-reaching and significant impact on self-concept and its development. Overall, these effects were negative and resulted in a poorer self-concept when compared to children who had not experienced such traumas. Additionally, studies have found that it can be extremely difficult to rebuild one’s self-concept following such experiences. With such difficulty re-building and maintaining a positive self-concept, it is not surprising that children suffering from abuse experience life-long difficulties in their everyday functioning.

About the Author

Dr. Montes is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center in Chesapeake, VA.


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