Statistics state that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have been the victims of sexual abuse as a child or adolescent. The rate is most likely higher since many people do not report or tell others that they have been sexually abused. It’s very important for survivors to get help in order to heal from the abuse which they suffered in their past.
Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Many survivors do not understand the connection between their childhood trauma 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. Therefore, the significance of symptoms and problems arising from the abuse is not always recognized.
Many adult survivors may have the following symptoms:
- 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 overwhelming.
- Undergo panics, rages, depressions, sleep disorders, or self-mutilation or have suicidal thoughts.
- Find themselves depending on alcohol, 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.
Most of these symptoms are due to the disruption of a healthy psychological development. An abusive childhood situation interferes with the child’s natural movement toward growth.
As a result of having limited opportunities to naturally develop healthy coping skills, survivors sometimes develop 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 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 appear 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.
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. They usually feel ashamed by the fact that they could not stop the abuse. Adult survivors sometimes report childhood blackouts in which large chunks of time are forgotten.
Survivors deal with the sexual abuse in different ways. Some 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. Many survivors 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. With proper treatment, many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. who have come to some sort of resolution with the trauma lead happy, healthy, fulfilled lives.
Consistent, patient, and caring effort is needed by both the survivor and those who are aiding in this healing process. While it is difficult and often painful to work towards recovery from childhood abuse, healing is possible when survivors have access to a support network that can provide them with nurturance, assistance, and care.