Perhaps you’ve been struggling for years with feelings that you can’t understand or explain. Here are some of the ways sexual abuse affects a child, which can follow into adulthood. Maybe you’ll see some of yourself in the list below:
- Self-blame: When children experience trauma,their inherent egocentrism leads them to believe that they are responsible. It’s important for them to understand and believe that the abuse was not their fault. Sexual abuse silences the victim. It takes away their voice. They live in secret, silent shame. They grow up believing their voice, opinion, and person does not matter.
Powerlessness: Children who’ve been abused have a strong sense of powerlessness. This can impair their self-image, which follows them into adulthood increasing their potential to be victimized again. The powerlessness of sexual abuse damages the body. Not only the physical body, but how they feel about their own body. Children who’ve been abused have no sense of ownership or protection of their own bodies. They assume that their bodies are for public use. This can lead to a disregard for their own safety causing them to act out sexually with others, or being re-victimized over and over.
- Loss and Betrayal: Children lose a sense of safety and may feel a loss of security because people have not protected them, especially significant caregivers. Betrayal, which is essentially a loss of trust, shakes the very foundation of childhood development. They come to view the world as a threatening place they have no control over, and often believe they do not deserve any better than the traumatizing experience.
- Stigmatization: Children who’ve been abused feel stigmatized. They feel an internal sense of shame and alienation—feeling labeled, different than others. They can get stuck in a continual pursuit of acceptance and feeling good enough. As a result sexual abuse damages the emotions leaving them with feelings of helplessness, shame, betrayal, fear, guilt, anger and grief.
- Eroticization: Through the experience of sexual abuse and rape, children may perceive that their value comes primarily from being sexual, thus they often become eroticized and act out on themselves or others what’s been done to them.
- Destructiveness: Many children may lose their impulse control, establishing a self-defeating cycle of aggression and destructiveness–against others and themselves. This may lead to frightening displays of temper and release of rage. Other destructive behaviors may include eating disorders, cutting, substance abuse and addictions.
- Attachment Disorders: Attachment is vital for survival, so it is understandable that threats to attachment are life and death issues for children. Sexual abuse damages one’s ability to build and sustain relationships. It affects relationships in areas of trust, boundaries and control. It is crucial for children who’ve endured sexual trauma to experience safety and a place to develop positive attachments.
Sexual abuse damages one’s thinking. Sexual abuse affects four areas of thought:
- Doublethink: Abuse puts the child’s mind into two contradictory thoughts at the same time. In order to survive the abuse, the mind has to do incredible things. One aspect of doublethink is finding a way to absolve your caretakers so that you can continue to feel cared for or safe. It’s thinking on the one hand that you have no hope of escape and on the other hand that it will be better tomorrow. The mind splits so that both realities can be true.
- Dissociation: Children cope with abuse through defense mechanisms of denial, repression and dissociation. Fragmentation and depersonalization can help protect the child from the overwhelming emotions that come from the abuse.
- Memory: Memories can be repressed and stored in the right side of the brain, or implicit memory where we may not be able to recall, or verbally describe the event.
- Lies and Truth: Sexual abuse damages our thinking through a set of lies. Healing requires bringing the lies into the light of God’s truth.
Sexual abuse damages the spirit, including faith. Trying to understand questions like, “How does a loving God allow something so bad to happen?” is incredibly confusing! This can cause the sexual abuse victim to believe that either God doesn’t exist, or he does exist but is not powerful enough to stop the evil. Or he’s either not a loving God, or he doesn’t love them.
Sexual abuse damages one’s ability to hope. The sexual abuse victim lives without hope in themselves, in others and in their future. To live without hope is to live in a dark, lonely place of despair.
Did you see yourself in the above list? If so, you’re not alone. And you’re not going crazy. What you’re feeling is real. Sexual abuse as a child is a significant trauma that affects every part of your being: spiritual, emotional, mental and physical. But there’s good news. Healing can reverse the lies and damage of abuse, and allow you to live free from the shame and torment that have followed you into adulthood.
You don’t have to face this alone: Email a mentor
For further reading in this series:
Childhood Sexual Abuse: How the past affects the present
How do I know if I’ve been sexually abused?
Why do I feel this way?
How Do I know if I need healing?
Why do I struggle with sexual intimacy?
How can I heal from my sexual past?
On The Threshold of Hope by: Diane Langberg
The Wounded Heart: Hope For Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by: Dan Allender
List of Barbara’s Books Barbara covers many issues in her books including Sexual Abuse and much more.