Child Abuse

Emotion Regulation Skills And Adult Sexual Revictimization

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Emotion regulation skills are believed to be critical in determining one’s risk for sexual revictimization in adulthood.

The term “emotion regulation” generally refers to the various mechanisms, processes, and coping strategies used to manage affective arousal in an effort to successfully engage in positive social interactions.

Self-regulation of emotions appear to play an essential role in both personal and social aspects of people’s lives. The ability to accurately identify, monitor, describe, and modify internal states can generate an understanding of one’s own emotional experiences that may aid in the identification of cognitive factors that trigger certain emotional states and reduce affective arousal. Furthermore, the recognition of others’ emotional experiences, which may serve as nonverbal signals in social interactions, may provide essential information that can help dictate how a person reacts to a particular social situation and modifies his/her own emotional expressions. Thus, the ability to recognize the emotional expressions of others may also aid in facilitating healthy, successful interpersonal relationships. Overall, by having a fuller understanding of emotional experiences, individuals may gain a greater awareness of how emotions impact social settings, which , may then allow individuals to more readily adapt and modify their emotional experiences to appropriately fit specific social circumstances.

Emotion regulation problems have frequently been identified in abused and neglected populations, particularly in cases involving prolonged and severe forms of trauma. Frequently referred to as “affect dysregulation”, this inability to effectively regulate emotions can result in a number of long-term problems for individuals who have been victimized. These problems can include alexithymia, dissociation, depression, eating disorders, emotional flooding/numbing, substance abuse, somatization, PTSD, anger management difficulties, poor impulse control, self-destructive and self-injurious behaviours, sexual promiscuity, and interpersonal difficulties.

One primary problem related to affect dysregulation in populations with victimization histories is alexithymia. The term “alexithymia” commonly refers to the inability to accurately identify and describe emotional states. This inability to identify, monitor and verbally describe internal states often prevents individuals with alexithymia from being aware of internal distress signals, which can be especially problematic given that this inability to identify emotions tends to worsen under stressful conditions. Higher alexithymia rates have been found in childhood maltreatment, childhood sexual assault, and intimate partner violence cases. Studies assessing childhood sexual assault, in particular, have found that these alexithymic symptoms appear to worsen in cases involving either longer periods of abuse, episodes of abuse occurring after age 12, or abusive acts that include penetration. Revictimization also appears to further exacerbate alexithymic symptoms. It is believed that these alexithymic symptoms may contribute to the occurrence of revictimization by impairing victims’ abilities to fully recognize and experience internal danger cues and effectively respond to external threats.

As noted earlier, one aspect of emotion regulation involves the ability to effectively recognize the emotional expressions of others. Facial expressions are particularly important in social interactions by facilitating communication and serving as social signals, which may alert individuals of distress and provide nonverbal cues of sexual interest. Deficits in this ability to accurately recognize and effectively respond to certain facial expressions can often lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication that may result in negative social interactions that may ultimately impair interpersonal relationships. Numerous studies indicate that both abused and maltreated children frequently exhibit emotion recognition(ER) deficits, and these impairments do not appear to be solely a function of intellectual and demographic characteristics. Children with abuse histories have demonstrated difficulties in decoding both child and adult faces and are often rated by teachers as less socially competent than their non-victimized classmates. Overall, results from these studies suggest that children who have been abused may be ill-equipped to effectively recognize both pleasant and distressing emotional cues.

The literature on affect dysregulation, alexithymia, and emotion recognition suggests the possibility that adults with a childhood abuse history may experience numerous emotion regulation and emotion recognition deficits, which may contribute to sexual revictimization in adulthood.  

Adapted from American Psychological Association: The Role of Emotion Recognition Skills In Adult Sexual Revictimization

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