There is an alarming number of effects sexual abuse has on children, and they all have the potential to be devastating.
To begin with, the great majority of sexually-abused children—90%— know their abuser. They have placed their complete trust and perhaps their love in this person, whether it’s a parent, step-parent, relative, pastor, family friend, teacher, or coach. Many predators groom their victims by telling them things they know the child wants to hear or buying them special gifts and treats. They have plans for later on, but the child sees only someone that they love and admire.
Before the abuse ever occurs, the child is already looking up to the person and admiring them, trying to please them and enjoying their approval. When the predator sexually abuses the child, the incident shatters the trust the child placed in the person. This shattered trust leads to doubt about the motives of other people in authority—a doubt that can last for years.
At the same time, the incident is extremely confusing. The child is caught between feelings of loyalty to the abuser and feelings that what happened is wrong. They may feel dirty, guilty or filled with shame, yet because the abuser, the person they trust, is telling them everything is fine and normal, they remain confused. They might fear being punished for the behavior or fear what will happen to the abuser, or they may fear violence from the abuser. Children may also wonder if they did something to cause the abuse. Adult survivors carry on with the feeling that is something bad happens, it’s probably their fault.
These are some of the main reasons that only about 30% of children tell someone about the abuse while they are still children. A good example is the thousands of cases of abuse of boys by Catholic priests. The boys who were abused never told until years later, when they were men. Many boys who are abused by men do not report the abuse for fear of being considered “gay.” In fact, even in adult life, some are haunted by the abuse and they still question their sexual orientation.
Another problem is that some sexually-abused children do tell a parent (usually their mother) and the parent may refuse to believe them. Parents who choose to ignore their children’s reports of sexual abuse are in effect telling their child “you can’t count on me to protect you.” And if you can’t count on your mother or father, your conclusion will be that you can’t count on anyone, ever. This feeling carries on into adulthood.
So, if a child does not tell, or tells and is not believed, they are going to carry a very negative psychological burden. This can manifest as many negative characteristics, and most likely the people who are dealing with the child at home or at school “just can’t understand” what’s “wrong” with him or her.
Very young victims of abuse may draw pictures of a sexual nature and ask numerous questions about sexual organs. They may also have nightmares and other sleep problems and seem especially fearful and anxious. Older children may also have nightmares, fear, and anxiety, and along with this, they can develop eating disorders, low self-esteem, and poor body image, claiming to “hate” their bodies. Some children choose social isolation, while others pursue inappropriate relationships and are promiscuous. School problems like poor behavior, truancy, low achievement, violence and aggressiveness are common. Unfortunately, suicide attempts are also more prevalent among victims of sexual abuse.
While this behavior describes characteristics that are likely to manifest in children, they don’t go away when the sexually-abused child becomes an adult.
All of the negative self-images and problems of childhood and adolescence remain. They simply continue in their adult forms. Adult survivors may use drugs or alcohol to cope with persistent feelings of fear and anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Their poor socialization skills may make it difficult for them to form lasting, trusting relationships or to hold jobs. If there is any conflict or friction in their lives, they feel guilty and ashamed. After all, it must be their fault because the other people involved are normal. There are groups for adult survivors of child sexual abuse, and of course there is individual therapy. It is never too late to seek help, but after all those years adults can find it very disturbing to finally tell and relive the abuse.
Childhood sexual abuse is not something that just happens and fades into the past.
It has serious, debilitating effects on its victims, and for those who do not receive appropriate and effective therapy, the effects can last a lifetime.
To learn more about the aftermath of child sexual abuse and what steps to take, you can order my book, Your Child, Safe from Secrets: How to Protect Kids from Sexual Abuse and Manage the Aftermath. Just click here.