Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a physically and emotionally destructive event that, unfortunately, happens often. This form of abuse occurs when a child is used to gratify an older individual. A central theme is that the abuse exploits power over the victim, often to fulfil their need to be powerful at the expense of the child. Sexual abuse happens across all forms of culture, economic status, race, and religion. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), 17,727 cases were reported in 2010 in England and Wales. However, estimation for the frequency of this form of abuse varies widely, and may be due to the unknown number of occurrences of child sexual abuse that are never reported.
Long Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse that is not properly addressed may have serious long-term psychological effects upon a survivor’s life. Every individual’s experiences and reactions to abuse are unique; therefore, not every adult who suffers from child sexual abuse will experience the same long-term effects. However, enough studies have been completed on the long-term effects of child sexual abuse to establish a list of commonly attributed psychological difficulties. These include, but are not exclusively limited to:
It is common for individual sufferers of child sexual abuse to not remember the abuse until years after it happens. Some survivors are never able to fully recall the abuse and only evoke distorted images. However, just because a full, clear memory of the abuse is not available, does not mean the abuse was necessarily less severe or may not be an influence on one’s mental health. Survivors frequently hold beliefs that they are responsible for why the abuse occurred and harbour intense feelings of guilt and self-blame. Similarly, abusers often tell the victim they are to blame for the abuse, which wrongfully shifts the blame away from the abuser and onto the child.
Survival Strategies for coping with child sexual abuse
Coping mechanisms or techniques developed to help handle difficult situations (i.e. the trauma of CSA), may also cause further difficulty into adulthood. The survival strategies utilized to numb the emotional and physical pain associated with the abuse may lead to issues with drug/alcohol use or dependence and other behaviours that promote self-injury. Survivors may also experience issues with eating because the control they can exhibit over food provides them a sense of control they were denied in childhood. Some survivors engage in behaviours which cause self-inflicted injury, such as burning, slashing, or cutting. Memories of the abuse may also trigger intense anxiety that can seem unbearable for the survivor who in turn uses self-inflicted injury as a method to relieve uncomfortable emotions associated with child sexual abuse.
How to make sense of emotions and behaviour
If you are a survivor of child sexual abuse and are using one of the coping methods mentioned above, this does not mean that you are “sick” or “broken beyond help.” What you should realize is that the self-inflicted behaviours are, or were, performed for a specific purpose: they help(ed) you cope with the child sexual abuse. Coping mechanisms allow us to get by from day to day; however, they may also pose a risk to physical or emotional health. At times the emotions that childhood sexual abuse triggers can lead the survivor to feel like they are “losing their mind.” This is understandable and to be expected because the emotions that adult survivors have are the reaction to the abuse they endured during their childhood. The emotions experienced may be the only manner in which the abuse can be experienced symptomatically. Regarding emotions as a method in which to express the effects of abuse, may be of help for the adult survivor. As an adult survivor you can learn healthier behaviours to cope with the intense pain and stress that you may be feeling.
Counselling for child sexual abuse
Everyone needs a safe environment in which they can connect with another individual and speak about their experiences. Speaking about past child sexual abuse with a trained therapist can help you to deal with unprocessed or unexpressed emotions associated with child sexual abuse that adult survivors often harbour. Working with a therapist can help adult survivors correct possible skewed perceptions they may hold about their abuse and properly process painful emotions and memories. If you are an adult survivor and want to talk to someone about it, you might opt for Psychotherapy or Counselling.