The Consequences of Child Sexual Abuse
In this page we'll discuss the most common consequences of child sexual abuse
- Emotional and Behavioral Consequences
- Somatic Consequences
- Sleep Disturbances
- School Performance
- Hypervigilance and Helplessness
- Low Self-esteem
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
- Over Sexualized Behavior
- Eating Disorders
Not all sexually abused children exibit the same symptoms. Similarly, there isn't a single profile of the child sexual offender. Sexual abuse is not a disorder characterized by a specific set of symptoms, but rather an experience with a wide range of manifestations. It's true that there are some fairly predictable effects, as the increasingly sexualized behavior of the child or post-traumatic disorders, but they are not, in any way, universal.
Emotional and Behavioral Consequences
For girls, the abuse tends do lead them to self-destruction and powerful feelings of hate for themselves. At the same time, they may learn to exploit the offender in order to obtain privileges, favors and material rewards, reinforcing a degrading self-image of almost "prostitutes". For boys, the abuse may dictate aggressive and antisocial behaviors as: sexually abusing other children, depression, violence and misogyny (based on the fact that the mother is seen as negligent and unprotective).
Somatically, children may experience headaches, sore throats, stomach aches, fatigue, and enuresis. The abuse also raises a number of concerns in terms of their body image: the children believe their bodies are different, they have been damaged, and that any person can realize they have been victims of sexual abuse. Older children also fear contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
Victims of child sexual abuse also suffer from sleep disturbances - this is particularly true if the abuses occurred during the night. This is when they think of the abuse and experience painful emotions related to it. When they fall asleep, they often have nightmares related to abuse, or a variation of it envlving monsters, wild animals, or situations in which the child or its family are in danger.
School performance alterations are one of the most common signs of child sexual abuse. A student that used to have a good performance may become aggressive and disruptive. In these cases, the child is identifying with the offender, trying to gain control over the abuse by victimizing those around her. On the other hand, a student with an average performance can see its performance improved: the child becomes perfectionist in order to receive approval and thus compensate for the trauma. If verified, these alterations should be addressed with the child.
Hypervigilance and Helplessness
Victims feel afraid and quickly realize that their security depends on their ability to be hypervigilant - if they are able to read and antecipate the behavior of the offender, they may avoid a potential abuse. However, this behavior implies nefarious consequences to the minor's well-being: the task of hypervigilance is completely absorbed in daily survival, and the child loses its energy and concentration. At the same time, the child feels powerless when it comes to the abuses, a feeling that ends up being transferred to other areas of her life, causing her to internalize a victim's identity.
Depression is also a common symptom of child sexual abuse. Most of the times, depression is undervalued because the signs exibited by children are different from the ones an adult would display. Children feel constantly fatigued, eat little or too much, suffer from insomnia or hypersomnias, have relatively low self-esteem, poor concentration, feelings of despair and dissociation, become angry, isolate themselves from the family and friends, cry constantly, increase their behaviors of self-punishment, make use of alcohol or drugs as a way of self-medication, and show intent to commit suicide, talking about the possibility of escape or disappear.
Children may express their feelings of sadness, loss, helplessness and fear through anger, which is a key stage in the treatment process, and functions as an assertive way for the child to express her feelings about the abuse. Generally, the anger is directed to the parents, especially if one of them exposed the child to the abuser, or did nothing to stop it. However, the expression of anger is discouraged within most families, which makes the child feel confused about her emotions. Most of the times, families punish this kind of attitude because they don't understand where it's coming from.
Frequently, victims of child sexual abuse behave in an aggressive manner, as an involuntary response to the intrapsychic conflict they're experiencing. The aggressive behavior enables the child to feel powerful and in control of the situation. However, she may become "addicted" to this feeling of power and control, which wull reinforce her behavior. These aggressive responses have multiple explanations - first, the child uses violent attitudes as a way of identifying with the offender who raped her for so long; aggressive behavior may also be the expression of self-hate and the desire for self-destruction; a manifestation of the will of the child to receive attention; a way of reinforcing her self-image as a "bad child"; an expression of the state of dissociation the child is experiencing; and the desire that the child feels to hurt someone in the same way she has been hurt.
Some children respond to the abuse through regression, behaving as if they were younger than they actually are. They regress to an earlier stage because they consider it safer, or because they think that this developmental stage was not well achieved at the time.
One of the most visible symptoms of child sexual abuse is the lack of self-esteem that victims experience. They feel invisible, because no one protected them against the abuse. They also feel useless, worthless, and see themselves as mere sex objects.
It is also common for victims of child sexual abuse to suffer from anxiety, which can be defined as an unpleasant feeling of apprehension, often accompanied by physiological symptoms such as excessive sweating, rapid heartbeat or breathing difficulties. Basically, anxiety serves as a warning that the child is dealing with some threat.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Abused children may develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms vary depending on the developmental stage of the victim, but, in general, post-traumatic stress arises after experiencing a situation in which her life or physical integrity was threatened. The victim re-experiences the event through flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations, and avoids stimuli associated with the event, as certain places or people.
Over Sexualized Behavior
As a result of the abuse, the child may become prematurely sexualized, and this is, by far, the most distinguishable consequence of child sexual abuse. Behaviors such as excessive masturbation, gender confusion, and sexual assault are often exibited by victims of this crime. The prematurely sexualized child, displays a compelling interest for any activity related to sexual issues, and devotes most of her time to this type of activities instead of going to school or playing with friends. Furthermore, she engages in sexual acts with much older or younger subjects. The child insists and persuades other children to engage in such activities, and in some cases may even resort to physical or emotional violence to get what she want. This happens because the child has distorted ideas about the rights of others when it comes to sexual behavior. The minor may alto exibit a series of disturbing behaviors when it comes to personal hygiene: playing with feces, urinating outside of the toilet, using an excessive amount of toilet paper, stealing used underwear, or maintaining sexual contact with animals. Some abused children dress and behave inappropriately for their age. They may even masturbate in front of other people because they earned that it was okay to have this kind of behavior when interacting with adults - this behavior wais reinforced in the past by the offender.
Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and obesity, may also be a consequence of sexual abuse. This may happen to boys and in girls, although it is more prevalent in females. These behaviors begin for several reasons. The child may eat in order to block painful feelings. On the other hand, eating disorders can function as a mechanism that allows the child to have control over her own life - she becomes obsessed with the number of calories she ingests and her weight, while trying to fully control this one aspect for her life. These disorders may also express anger, the anger is internalized and turned against the child's own body, as a way to punish herself for what happened. In most cases, the child overeats and becomes obese, as a way to create a secure distance from the opposite sex; but she may also eat less because se thinks that if she loses enough weight, the abuses will stop.