This first post in this blog series is on the effects of childhood sexual abuse. I encourage you to do more reading and educate yourself and be in conversation with any survivor in your life about what works for them. There are so many reading sources. One of the effects that happens with being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse : sometimes one is labeled as a survivor and this becomes a blanket statement instead of being a whole person. If and when you forget their personhood, help yourself remember to come back to them and how this is presenting in their life now. They are so much more than their history. There are a LOT of mixed opinions about abuse and the healing, the process, the “right” way to do things. I’m really not wanting to say what or who is right / wrong. I’m wanting to spark a dialogue inside of yourself and with the people in your life.
What is Abuse?
One of the most helpful things that I learned was that sexual abuse shows up as more than extreme horror stories. The most extreme abuse may look like ritualized and continuous rape / intercourse. But it’s not always this. It can also be unwanted touch that is or is not genital, objectifying or sexual in nature comments about one’s body, emotional / psychological combinations of control & neglect, being physically abusive during sex that is masked as “BDSM” or “Kink” play, emotionally fused relationships without acknowledgement of boundaries, and more.
Why This First : one of the reasons I decided to start with this topic is that it seems like the ground. If you don’t know what may be happening in this person’s life (or if you’re questioning this for yourself), or you feel confused about how they are living or behaving, it can be really helpful to have information about what can show up later. This can look and present in so many different ways, but here are some categories of what they may be going through below. And please know that this is hard to read and the effects below can be devastating (or feel more manageable for some), but they do not have to be permanent. As you read, remember not “everyone” who suffers from any of these below is a survivor, these can be red flags to spark your curiosity to inquire a little further with finesse. And, remember the statistics, chances are it could be true simply based on the numbers :
Possible Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on a Child / Teen :
– sexual : over-sexualization for age, extreme masturbation, sexual promiscuity
– physical / medical : bed-wetting, nightmares, consistently sick, asthma, depression, migraine / headache, stomach aches, bladder and vaginal infections
– psycho-social : substance abuse, re-victimization, self-harm, bullying / being bullied, loneliness, isolation, shame, self-blame, trouble with schoolwork, violent behavior, hyper-vigilance, fear of disclosure, re-enactment on other children, rage, attempts to protect others from abuse (friends or family members)
– mental health : re-enactment through play, dissociation & memory loss, phobias, eating disorders, sleep disorders
Possible Impacts on an Adult:
– sexual : sexual dysfunctions, prostitution, teen pregnancy
– physical / medical : asthma, infertility, chronic GI issues, migraines, pelvic pain, chronic pain, constipation, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, muscular pain, TMJ (jaw)
– psycho-social : dysfunctional relationships, substance abuse, discomfort with touch, fear of medical & dental procedures, high achiever (perfectionist), anti-authority
– mental health : OCD, mental illness, dissociative disorder, phobias, nightmares, depression / anxiety, panic attacks, low self-image, eating disorders, PTSD
Self Esteem & Personal Power
Due to the disrespect of physical / emotional / sexual boundaries, survivors are sometimes given a subtle or explicit message that they are wrong, unimportant, bad, unworthy, and many other damaging feelings. If they told someone about what was happening, they may have been ignored or denied or humiliated or blamed for it. This can lead to feeling powerless, different than everyone else, self-destructive or suicidal, broke, self-loathing, afraid, perfectionist, immobilized, inability to trust, unable to protect oneself, and much more.
Children usually cannot afford to feel the full extent of the emotions at the time of the abuse. It would be devastating and take them away from being able to function. Focusing in school, having friends, and the joys of childhood are not possible if one is feeling the extent of their rage or desire to kill their abuser. Due to this, they may feel that they cannot trust their feelings. If they did show anger, grief, terror, they may have been criticized or invalidated. They may have learned to block out pain because it was too devastating or because they didn’t want anyone to see them feeling. They may need assistance in labeling and recognizing feelings, valuing them, figuring out which ones feel safer / dangerous, making sense of confusion, notice what they are prone to (depression, nightmares, panic attacks), and noticing how their emotions show up in their behavior (for example, maybe they become violent or verbally abusive to others).
Children learn about the world through their body. Experiencing abuse, especially at very young ages, can interrupt the experience of the physical world being safe. some children leave their bodies or numb themselves to deal with the painful experience. Helping them notice when they feel present in their body and when they feel out of their body, how they use substances (food, alcohol, drugs) to deal with the bodily experience, when numbness / shut down in the body occurs, if they can read messages about hunger / sleep / fear and if they can respond to them, if there is self-harm behavior (abuse of one’s own body in the form of cutting, eating / starvation patterns, hitting oneself, etc.) , if there are enjoyable bodily experiences like exercise, painting, being outside, cooking and how to use them as resources.
The building blocks of intimacy are learned in childhood (giving, receiving, boundaries, trusting and being trustworthy). When abused, the natural trust is skewed by adults who took advantage of innocence. Growing up with confusing messages about sex, love, trust, and betrayal leads to needing to tease those things apart later down the road. Helping survivors notice what health and intimacy in relationships means to them, the kinds of relationships they currently have and if they feel supportive or reminiscent of any abusive relationship, if there is a lot of testing / panicking / running away / clinging, if there is the capacity to say yes & no will be helpful.
When abuse takes away the natural capacity to explore oneself and others sexually, the person gets introduced to sex on the timeline of another. The lack of experiencing one’s desires from the inside first may lead to shame, guilt, disgust, pain, humiliation, and doubt when sexual arousal happens later in life. It’s important that survivors know that it is common that they may feel arousal with the abuse. It is not their fault that their body responds to sexual contact. Unfortunately this can lead to desire feeling dangerous and linked to the abuse psychologically. If abuse is coupled with affection, the child’s needs for nurturing become linked with sex. Children need to learn to meet needs for comfort and affection without sex. Reflections for survivors on pleasure, love making, closeness, affection / comfort / close physical contact, over-sexualization or high amounts of sexual contact without consent or desire, worth in connection to sex, can all be helpful reference points.
Children & Parenting
If the abuse occurred in a family or the family did not protect / support the child, the healthy role models that we need from family is not given. If this is not faced directly, the person who experienced the abuse may repeat or continue the patterns in their own life without intending to. The people who are working on this content are usually not the ones who are perpetrating. The people who are not questioning any of this in their life and want to find ways to continually abuse others are usually the ones who continue and repeat these patterns. Helpful reflections for this can be to ask if they feel afraid or uncomfortable around children, if they fear they have been or might be abusive, find it difficult to set boundaries with children, to balance the needs of the child with their own needs, find it hard to feel close to children or discomfort being affectionate with them, feeling overbearing, talked with their children honestly (age appropriately) about sex and bodies, taught children how to do boundaries for themselves.
Families of Origin
Relationships in incestuous families are distorted. Trust, sharing, safety are replaced with secrecy, isolation, and fear. If the abuse is in the family, the survivor may have been made the family scapegoat (everything is their fault) or been told they are wrong / crazy / bad. If the abuse was outside the family and the survivor was not heard (whether at the time of the abuse or later down the road), the message is that the experience is not important and the family cannot be relied on to protect and understand. Reflections about satisfaction with family relationships, if the abuse is acknowledged within the family and if the family (individuals and as a whole) is supportive, if there are feelings of invalidation / crazy / depressed whenever family time is spent, if the abuser has been confronted, if there is safety felt in the family, if the family seems realistic about change / protecting / believing, if incest is still happening in the family can all be helpful to reference where the person is.
The Effects Can be Recovered
I know this is heavy and it can feel incredibly daunting to read the above information. To remember that living through the abuse is the hardest part, and that recovery is possible, can be a beacon of light and love. The same abuse that has been so painful has given incredible resources inside of one’s system. Surviving against all of the most challenging odds is an accomplishment, and resiliency is in place. One quality every single survivor has is strength. With an understanding of what it takes to heal, this strength leads to determination. Visiting the above information with yourself and with any survivor in your life is the beginning.
My next post will be about gender and sexual orientation stereotypes. There are times when boys experience abuse by women or men, and when girls experience abuse by women. Women who are lesbians are not gay because of their abuse. Click here to read this post on gender and sexual stereotypes.
Click here to read the first post in this series which has all of the topics listed! Thank you for reading and spending time here, believe me I know it’s not the easiest place to be, in gratitude and love, Alicia