Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse (CSA) has lifelong effects. Adults who are survivors of CSA often report a feeling of being “stuck”. Their efforts to build and manage their lives often seem fruitless, hollow, or even hopeless. There can be a persistent perception that they are somehow different from others. They commonly report feeling that they are on the outside looking in or believe that they just don’t belong.
Often, these symptoms are a mystery to the sufferers. They may not understand the connection between their childhood situation and their adult experience. Generally, the abuse has either been accepted by the survivor as “normal” or is viewed as something that is better left in the past. In some cases, the abuse may not be remembered. Consequently, the significance of symptoms and problems arising from the abuse is often not recognized.
The adult symptoms of childhood abuse can take many forms. Many adult survivors may:
- Find it difficult to develop or maintain close personal relationships.
- Have a strong desire to live in isolation or to “hide out” from life.
- Endure physical ailments like neck, back, stomach and gynecological problems that persist despite efforts at good self-care.
- Experience feelings of sadness, fear and anger that often seem unmanageable or overwhelming.
- Undergo panics, rages, depressions, sleep disorders, or self-mutilation or have suicidal thoughts.
- Find themselves depending on alcohol, other drugs, or may develop eating disorders to cover feelings of humiliation, shame and low self-esteem.
- Experience problems like low self-esteem, avoidance of sex, promiscuity, or inability to experience orgasms or erections.
- Exhibit signs of trauma like panic attacks, numbing of body areas, and feeling of being disconnected from their bodies.
All children have a right to have their basic needs met. Children need to feel secure in order to learn to trust their environment. They need support for the development of dreams and wishes. They need encouragement to be separate unique individuals. They need a consistent sense of belonging, and of worth from their families and home situations. Abuse denies these very basic needs. As a result, adult survivors are often left with a deficit of emotional and practical skills for dealing with their present “grown-up” world. As a result of having limited opportunities to naturally develop these skills, survivors will frequently develop extraordinarily complex coping mechanisms in their attempts to appear “normal.” As a child, the survivor may have learned the importance of “pretending that nothing is wrong.” This coping mechanism allows them to function in society in ways that never allow anyone to guess that they struggle with such pain on the inside.
Some survivors compensate for their feelings of shame or inadequacy by becoming “over-achievers.” They frequently mask their pain or feelings of fragility so successfully that it becomes all the more important to the survivors that others around them do not discover that they are not really who they pretend to be. Having not been given appropriate levels of love, care, or attention when they were their true selves as children, they might feel that they will not be given love, care, and attention if they allow their true selves to be seen as adults.
Furthermore, the effects of childhood abuse also tend to recur at important junctions throughout survivors’ lives. Symptoms undisturbed for years may flare as they enter serious romances, consider marriage, or become the parent of a child. Adult survivors may fear the intimacy and responsibility of committed relationships. Caring for children may arouse memories of the survivors’ unmet childhood needs and lead to sadness and/or depression. They may fear that they may abuse children the way they were abused.
The death of a parent can also evoke disruptive responses for adult survivors. Buried feelings toward the parent about the abusive childhood situation can surface at the time of the parent’s death and overwhelm the survivor if she/he is unprepared to handle them. Other friends and relatives may not know how to be sensitive to the survivor’s feelings and experiences. They may disbelieve, be unsupportive, or be unresponsive if the survivor discloses. These reactions can compound the difficulties the survivor is already experiencing.
Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Because our culture regards sexual contact between children and adults as taboo, sexual abuse usually takes place in secret and is kept secret. Denial of sexual abuse is much stronger than denial of physical or emotional abuse. Because of the silence surrounding most sexual abuse, children are forced to endure the abuse and it’s effects alone. As adults, survivors often continue to feel alone and isolated. They fear exposing the shame, rage, and hurt connected to their childhood experiences. They tend to blame themselves for the abuse, especially if there was pleasure, comfort, or a sense of caring attached to the incident. They frequently feel ashamed by the fact that they could not stop they abuse. In many instances, adult survivors do not have the words to talk about the sexual abuse. They often do not remember the details but have only a vague feeling of discontent with another family member or friend of the family. Adult survivors frequently report childhood blackouts in which large chunks of time are forgotten. The denial of sexual abuse may cause total blocking of the experience, leaving only an intuitive sense that something wrong has happened.
Sexual abuse survivors commonly live with a deep sense of shame. They may blame themselves for the abuse and fear being blamed by others if they ask for help. This self-blame is often exacerbated because it is not experienced as a guilty sense of having done wrong, but as a shameful sense of being wrong. Incest survivors are particularly harsh with themselves about causing trouble within the family and believing they deserve to be hurt.
Survivors deal with the sexual abuse in a variety of ways. They may become over-responsible, believing that they are accountable for everything and must take care of others, often meeting the needs of others before their own. On the other hand, they may act out against others in manipulative or abusive ways, especially if that is the only way they have learned to get their needs met. Moreover, the survivor may have developed self-destructive behaviors (substance abuse, eating disorders, acting out sexually, self-mutilation, etc.) as ways to escape from or as attempts to gain control over the pain that stems from the abuse. Survivors who did not have the resources or opportunities to work through the trauma they experienced are frequently prone to self-hate, self-destructiveness, and feelings of hopelessness. It is important to remember that many adult survivors of CSA who have come to some sort of resolution with the trauma lead happy, healthy, fulfilled lives.
Barriers to Healing
It is often difficult for adult survivors to seek help. The following are some of the most common barriers to getting help that they face:
- Denial that childhood abuse is a problem. Many adult survivors have difficulty connecting their current life situation with earlier childhood abuse. This denial can take many forms: rationalizing, minimizing, intellectualizing, focusing of the problems and shortcomings of others, hoping the problems will take care of itself, feelings that they can take care of their problems on their own.
- The belief that things can never get better, there is no hope.
- Fear that they will be consumed by the intensity of their feelings if they begin to deal with the abuse. They often fear the feelings will engulf them or that they will explode if they lose control.
- Fear and shame about sharing family secrets. Survivors often fear that to get help is to betray and hurt their families, or that they will be punished for exposing family secrets.
- Fear that they will not be believed because they may not be able to remember the details of their abuse.
- Inability to blame their parents or other adults for the abuse. We are taught to love and honor our parents and to be respectful of other adults.
- Fear of taking responsibility for looking at oneself and one’s behvior. It can be much easier for the survivor to continue to blame others for the maladaptive ways that she/he is dealing with the abuse.
- Fear that there will be nothing left in the advanced stages of healing. This fear is sometimes overwhelming. As survivors strip away all the old negative beliefs that have been the burdensome but familiar foundation for their lives, they begin to feel that everything they’ve ever known is shifting and nothing is certain or sure.
Adapted from: The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse Publication, 1990.