Children who have been sexually abused may experience physical or emotional harm. The effects can be short term but sometimes they last into adulthood. If someone has been abused as a child, it is more likely that they will suffer abuse again. This is known as revictimisation. Many survivors of abuse have heard painful comments from others who didn’t get it, telling them their abuse was in the past and to get over it. But, sadly, childhood abuse causes many difficulties for survivors, and it’s not simply a matter of forgiving and forgetting. Not everyone experiences the same after-effects of childhood abuse, but there are many commonalities among survivors in what they suffer.
Childhood sexual abuse affects adults in many different ways. Despite this, survivors have many strengths and resources to help them overcome these effects. They may experience long-term effects such as nightmares, night terrors or flashbacks of disturbing images from childhood. For some people, alcohol and other drug dependency, eating disorders, mental health problems, phobias or obsession may be related to earlier abuse.
- Sexual abuse is always the offender’s fault, never the victim’s
- It is against the law for anyone to force another person to have sex, or to participate in any sexual act, regardless of age, gender, cultural and religious beliefs.
- Sexual abuse is not uncommon. It is a crime experienced by women, children and men. You are not alone.
- Every child has the right to be safe.
- Every adult has the responsibility to protect children.
Adult survivors of child sexual abuse may have some of the following concerns that are specific to their experience:
- Guilt, shame, and blame. They might feel guilty about not having been able to stop the abuse, or even blame themselves if they experienced physical pleasure. It is important to understand that it is the perpetrator who should be held accountable—not the victim.
- Negative Messages about Personal and Interpersonal Worth. Children, like adults, internalize emotional experiences from their lives. Their identities are formed by absorbing and thinking about how the attitudes, behaviors, and expectations of those around them inform their world.
Abused children, however, find themselves in extremely difficult environments and surrounded by harmful role-models and caretakers. They are victims of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse. Because of this, their perceptions of their own worth, and the goodness of others in their lives is skewed in a negative way. As they grow older, childhood victims of abuse are prone to carry these negative assessments of themselves and others into adulthood.
They may become aggressive, defensive, or overly shy when presented with social opportunities. As a result, many adult survivors of sexual abuse are unable to create close, intimate relationships with other people.
- Acting on Unconsciously Buried Abuse. Childhood abuse is often “memorized” by bodily sensations, but many memories of abuse can go unnoticed, still having a strong influence over adult lives. Children who are abused lack the mental tools necessary to label properly and express their experience of abuse.
As often happens, during their mind’s frantic search to make sense of their situation, they pull the plug, essentially “disconnecting” from the memory altogether, often acting as if the experience never happened.
While this is a natural reaction for children developmentally unable to do much different, these childhood experiences can remain “buried” inside an adult survivor’s mind and guide their behaviors. Without a proper recovery treatment, these hidden experiences, though they never surface, come to dictate how adult survivors interact with others, perceive their worth, or act or don’t act during sexual encounters. Specific psychological defenses and behaviors, while perhaps all that is available to childhood victims, can wreak new havoc on the lives of adult survivors. The results are often long-lasting and negative.
- Engaging in Avoidance Coping Styles. Adults who have survived sexual abuse as children may also fall into patterns of avoidance behavior. They may distance themselves from other people, never risk getting close to others, even purposefully hurt relationships they already have.
This brand of behavior is a hallmark of early abuse. As children forced into distressing sexual situations, they were denied many key developmental skills and experiences. Their childhood was developmentally off balance, and to lessen whatever pains they feel or remember in the present, adult survivors often seek to avoid the attention and closeness of others.
Avoidance behaviors take many forms. Some adult survivors isolate themselves from any social contact. Others turn to alcohol and drugs, engage in self-harm, or completely dissociate from their need to express pain. Still others combine many different kinds of avoidance to “fit” whatever perceptions their abused minds feel are appropriate and necessary.
Other indicators in adults include:
- Poor body image
- Approval Seeking
- Exaggerated startle response.
- Eating Disorders
- Sexual dysfunction
- Worrying that their abuser is still a threat to themselves or others
- Learning difficulties, lower educational attainment, difficulties in communicating
- Behavioral problems including anti-social behavior, criminal behavior
- Pervading sense of anxiety, wondering whether it is possible to ever feel safe
Adults consciously and unconsciously think, feel, and behave under the influence of early sexual abuse. Childhood abuse not only robs children of loving, caring years, but continues stealing valuable experiences and healthy coping mechanisms from adult survivors. If this list proves anything, it is that childhood, and consequently adulthood, is made difficult and complex in the face and memory of sexual abuse.
Some survivors keep the abuse a secret for many years. They may have tried to tell an adult and met with resistance or felt there was no one they could trust, and overtime, as most people fail the survivors’ exacting test of trustworthiness, they tend to withdraw from relationships. The isolation of the survivor, thus persists even after they are free. For these reasons and many others, the effects of sexual abuse can occur many years after the abuse has ended. Remember that there is no set timeline for dealing with and recovering from this experience.
The more you, an adult survivor, can learn to identify specific psychological roadblocks preventing recovery, the more chances you have to reverse the negative behaviors currently affecting your life.