The Long-Term Harmful Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse

This April we have been focused on childhood sexual abuse (CSA), a crime that can cause long-term harm even as the child grows into adulthood. 1in 4 women and 1 in 6 men alive in the United States today were molested sexually before the age of 18. This means there are more than 42 million adult survivors in the U.S.  

Today we will explore together the long-term affects that childhood sexual abuse has on, not only children, but to the adults they become.

A Short Recap

It would be remiss of me if I did not first give everyone a brief recap of what we have explored so far pertaining to childhood sexual abuse.

The actual prevalence of childhood sexual abuse is unknowable because there are so many people who are victims and never tell their stories. Researchers have found and suggest rates that vary from 1% to 35% but most mental health and medical professionals rate childhood sexual abuse at 8% to 20%.

Although the prevalence of CSA varies, most professionals agree that there will be 500,000 babies born in the United States this year that will experience childhood sexual abuse before they turn eighteen years old. 

CSA is any type of sexual activity between an adult and a minor or between minors when one forces the other to perform unwanted touches.

Sexual abuse includes both touching and non-touching behaviors such as exposing a child to pornography, exhibitionism, or photographing a child for sexual gratification later. It also includes the solicitation of a child for sex or prostitution, communicating with a child in a sexual fashion on the phone or the internet.

Sexual abuse occurs between a minor and a trusted adult but rarely with a stranger. Abusers can be parents (either sex), pastors, priests, nuns, teachers, doctors, a family friend, etc. (The Children’s Assessment Center)

The sexual abuse of a child is a crime against humanity.

How Does Childhood Sexual Abuse Affect Children?

Childhood sexual abuse causes great harm to children, a claim that is disputed among some circles who believe, erroneously, that children will simply outgrow any possible harm that was done to them.

There are both mental and physical changes that occur in a child victim of sexual violence.

Mentally, the child may become isolated, afraid all the time, and secretive. Sexually abused children may have nightmares, begin to soil themselves again after being potty trained, and develop post-traumatic stress disorder. These young children may also become depressed and attempt to die by suicide.

Physically, the child will experience changes in the brain, developmental delays, and maladjustment in school. The child who is sexually abused can experience internal injuries, begin menstruating early, and become pregnant way before they are mentally able to handle it.

A victim of childhood sexual abuse experiences anger, shame, and despair that often is directed inward causing huge problems such as impulsiveness, aggression, delinquency, hyperactivity, and substance abuse (Teicher, 2000; Finkelhor, 1986).

Brain Damage Caused by Childhood Sexual Abuse

When children are sexually molested, their bodies circulate stress hormones in response to fear and uncertainty. These hormonal changes ready their bodies for the flight/fight/freeze response. Unfortunately, because childhood sexual abuse is a chronic problem, meaning it occurs often, the stress hormones do not have a chance to return to baseline causing damage to vital regions of the brain.    

The developing brains of children form many abnormalities including limbic irritability and underdeveloped and lack of differentiation of the left hemisphere of the brain as seen by insufficiencies in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus that affects the way memories are stored and retrieved.  

Other abnormalities include deficient left to right hemisphere integration meaning there is a marked change during memory recall because of underdevelopment of the middle portion of the corpus callosum (the pathway connecting the two hemispheres of the brain.)

There is also abnormal activity in the middle strip between the two hemispheres of the brain, the cerebellar vermis. This brain region plays an important role in emotional and attentional balances plus regulates electrical activity inside the limbic system (Teicher, 2000).   

How Does Childhood Sexual Abuse Affect Adult Survivors?

There is a myriad of different effects that childhood sexual abuse has on adult survivors later in their lives. These changes include both physical and emotional changes.

Physical health problems that survivors of CSA might experience include:

  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Arthritis
  • Headaches
  • Gynecological problems
  • Stroke
  • Hepatitis
  • Heart disease

(Felitti et al., 1998; Sachs-Ericsson et al., 2009; Springer et al., 2007) 

There are other diseases related to the auto-immune response as well that have been correlated with childhood sexual abuse. Also, in a review of the literature surrounding CSA and adults, survivors have a much higher incidence of medical problems as compared to their non-counterparts. Indeed, a meta-analysis of 34 studies found that childhood maltreatment is related to an increased risk of neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal illnesses.  

Mental health problems caused by childhood sexual abuse include personality disorders, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, and psychosis.  

An American representative study that was based on the National Co-morbidity Survey found that adults who had experienced childhood violence of any type were two and a half times more likely to have major depression and six times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (Afifi et al., 2009).

Substance abuse is a huge consequence of surviving CSA. Many survivors use alcohol or drugs to bury their emotions so that they do not need to remember or face what happened to them in childhood.

Sexual disturbances are common among survivors of CSA with many survivors swinging one direction or the other from disinterest and loathing of sex to promiscuity.

What Happens When CSA Does Not Hurt?

 Some victims of childhood sexual abuse feel because they have not experienced the side-effects of their abuse they were not abused. The confusion comes from the fact that not all sexual assault of children is frightening or painful. Sometimes the abuse manifests in the form of a reward or is so gentle that the child does not understand what is happening to them is a crime.

The fact remains that children cannot choose to have sex with an adult or sibling because they have not the ability to understand the consequences to their actions. Children are always, always innocent victims when an adult or older child decides to sexually abuse them. So, no matter how the encounter felt, it was still illegal, immoral and should never have happened.

Rounding it Up

Child sexual abuse is an epidemic that is a scourge upon humanity with so many children having their childhoods cut short. Victims of CSA have no responsibility in what happened to them as they are innocent children who do not understand what was being done to them.

There are some major damages done to the developing brains of children who experience CSA including mental, physical, and brain changes. Some of these changes are permanent and affect the children when they become adults.

We, as a society, must stand up and defend our children because if we do not this horrific crime against humanity will continue leaving the future of our society at risk.

“You can recognize survivors of abuse by their courage. When silence is so very inviting, they step forward and share their truth, so others know they aren’t alone.” ~ Jeanne McElvaney

“We aren’t the weeds in the crack of life. We’re the strong, amazing flowers that found a way to grow in the most challenging conditions.” ~ Jeanne McElvaney

References

Afifi, T., Boman, J., Fleisher, W., & Sareen, J. (2009). The relationship between child abuse, parental divorce, and lifetime mental disorders and suicidality in a nationally representative adult sample. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33, 139-147.

Felitti, V., Anda, R., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, F., Spitz, A., Edwards, V. et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction in many of the leading causes of death in adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4).

Finkelhor DA. A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications; 1986.

Sachs-Ericsson, N., Cromer, K., Hernandez, A., & Kendall-Tackett, K. (2009). A review of childhood abuse, health, and pain-related problems: The role of psychiatric-disorders and current life stress. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 10(2), 170-188.

Springer, K., Sheridan, J., Kuo, D., & Carnes, M. (2007). Long-term physical and mental health consequences of childhood physical abuse: Results from a large population-based sample of men and women. Child Abuse & Neglect, 31, 517-530.

The Children’s Assessment Center. Child Sexual Abuse Facts & Resources. Retrieved from: https://cachouston.org/prevention/child-sexual-abuse-facts/

Teicher, M. H. (2000). Wounds that time won’t heal: The neurobiology of child abuse. Cerebrum2(4), 50-67.

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