Effects of Sexual Abuse on Children


By Ron Hindbaugh M.A.


As a community we all are concerned when it is reported that children may have been sexually abused. Sexual abuse is something we try to pretend does not exist. But when the fact of its existence hits you in the face, it must be addressed. Wishing sexual abuse did not exist will not make the problem disappear. This article is intended to take a close look at the effects of sexual abuse on children and to offer some suggestions as to how parents and the community that supports parents can help.

It is reported that two thirds of all children who are sexually abused are "emotionally damaged." Guilt or shame is the most common reaction reported in the literature. Because sexual abuse is not always painful in nature, children tend to blame themselves for the abuse feeling that they are somehow responsible for behavior that they know intuitively is "wrong." This guilt can intensify with time. Although preschoolers often do not experience this guilt in the short term, it can become a problem, as they grow older. This is especially true if the abuse is ongoing.

Anxiety, fear, depression, and anger are other frequently mentioned reactions of children to sexual abuse. All of these emotions are ways that children cope with the helplessness they feel as a result of the sexual aggression. Because the abuser is bigger, and normally a caretaker, the child may feel that they are powerless to stop the sexual experience.

Children who are sexually abused may regress. They may do things like thumb suck, wet the bed, withdraw, have bowel control problems, cry a lot, or revert to other earlier behavior. The victim of child abuse feels helpless to stop the aggression so finds some security in behavior that was used at an earlier time in their life when they were also helpless.

Children who have been sexually abused may tend to become more sexualized. One of the reasons for this is that the child who has been sexually abused, over a period of time, has not learned or been taught the normal sexual inhibitions that are a common part of the training of other children.

Because children are like sponges and learn from their environment, abused children may repeat the abusive situation in some fashion. Many times this "copy cat" behavior surfaces later in life. It is ironic that children who were abused at a specific age tend to, later in life, pick victims that are the age they were when they were abused. Contrary to popular beliefs, repeat sexual abuse is not inevitable. With an honest and open approach, and with a strong support team, the trauma of the abuse does not have to repeat itself in the next generation.

After being sexually abused some children may engage in self-destructive behaviors. The self hate that some children experience may translate into self-punishment in a variety of ways. Children may behave badly just to be punished. These children may be depressed or may intentionally hurt themselves. They may take on victim thinking and feel that no one likes them or everyone is taking advantage of them.

Sometimes children who are sexually abused have difficulty concentrating in school. They appear to have short attention spans and may appear powerless. They act as if they are not in control of their world. This may be a function of the nature of the abusive situation in which they are largely helpless.

Although a sexually abused child may be traumatized by the actual experience of the abuse, the court system, designed to protect children, can be a frightening experience also. Having to answer the same questions many times, appearing in a big scary courtroom with the abuser present, and the procedures of the legal system can be harmful to the child. In a survey of Judges who were asked about the effects of the legal system on the child, 84% indicated that they felt that the experience of appearing in court was emotionally traumatizing to children.

What can be done to minimize the trauma to a child who has experienced sexual abuse?

1.   Seek help early for yourself and your child. This is a new experience for you and your child. Don't try to face the adjustment process alone. You may think that keeping things a secret will eventually make everything ok. It doesn't.

2.   Help your child develop healthy attitudes and values about themselves and their sexuality. Just because there has been a "bad" learning experience does not mean there cannot be "good" learning experiences designed by you to help your child. Have faith in your child's ability to sort things out.

3.   Assure that courts do not further traumatize your child. You want your child to cooperate so an abuser is stopped but not at the cost of further trauma to your child. The process itself does not have to be negative. Prepare your child for a court experience by visiting the courtroom before testimony is given. Make sure that your child does not have to repeat testimony many times. Make sure that the judge will protect your child from unnecessary or brutal cross-examination. Let your child know that no matter what the verdict is that you believe them and are proud of their courage to tell the truth.

4.   As time goes by, do not forget that the world looks different to children at different ages. Do not feel the trauma is "gone." Sexually knowledge gained prematurely does not have to remain a problem if there is a long-term plan to teach responsible sexual behavior. This plan needs to include attitudes toward others and appropriate empowerment as well as developmentally appropriate sexual information. Develop your plan and then be diligent in carrying it out.

A bad experience can traumatize a child. This does not mean that parents should "run scared." They should face this trauma just like any other trauma is faced. Evaluate what has happened. Determine the seriousness of the trauma and it's effects on the child. Then develop a plan and work the plan. After you have done all of this have faith, faith in your child, faith in the people who are your support team, and faith in the love of a Father in Heaven who watches over His little ones.