Once you’ve established that child sexual abuse (CSA) you may have experienced needs to be addressed, a good first step is education. One of the basic things to learn are the common effects of CSA on adult functioning, and which of these effects apply to your experience. It is important to start this blog post with a pat statement: having experienced child sexual abuse (CSA) does not make you damaged goods. In fact, it is an experience that can be transformed into many different strengths.
Our social context creates an ideal breeding ground for possible negative consequences of CSA. Messages around sex, people not talking about CSA, victim blaming, among other factors can exacerbate trauma responses and make problematic self- and world-beliefs for a survivor. Common ones include, “It was my fault,” “I’m broken/damaged/worthless/unloveable,” “I’m not safe,” “I can’t trust anyone,” etc. From these beliefs can come emotional and behavioural effects, which I’ve outlined below.
It is also important to mention that all people respond in different ways to similar events. What may be true for your experience may be different for someone else, and there is no right or wrong way to react to trauma. You were/are doing your best with the tools you had/have. If you’re a survivor or supporting a survivor in healing and reading this, know that any one survivor may or may not have experienced all, some, or none of these.
Without further ado, here is a list of possible after-effects of child sexual abuse on adult functioning:
- Depression, feeling suicidal, often anxious with no apparent cause
- Feelings of guilt, self-blame, shame
- Feelings of numbness, emptiness, unreality, confusion
- Tend to minimize or rationalize
- Low self-esteem or feeling only worth is sexual
- Feeling isolated, feeling different, feeling alien, aloneness
- Anger, irritability, rage
- Unaware of why you feel this way
- Dissociative symptoms: Spacing out, sleep walking, memory disturbances
- Symptoms of post-traumatic stress: flashbacks, sleep disturbances, nightmares
- Not being able to succeed at anything, may have low academic or career motivation, or may put all energies into accomplishing, perfectionism, over-achieving, self-worth dependent on achievements.
- Lapses of memory in childhood
- Lack of assertiveness, feelings of helplessness, feeling of lack of control over life and ability to make decisions, confusion, difficulty in communication.
- Running away
- A high pain tolerance
- Substance abuse, eating disorders, self-mutilation
- Gynecological or other physical problems (chronic back pain, neck pain, fibromyalgia)
- Difficulty feeling intimate in relationships (may be distrustful, may have series of destructive relationships, may have difficulty making long-term commitment to a partner)
- Connecting with another human in a deep way causing feelings of fear or like closing down
- Sexual difficulties (may feel uncomfortable in sexual situations, may tend toward multiple superficial sexual involvements, may have difficulty with orgasm, may be uncomfortable with particular ways of being sexual)
- May have stormy relationship with mother or non-protective parent
- Repeated victimization (sexual assault later in life, prostitution, domestic abuse in adulthood, etc.)
- Worry about victimizing other children, concern that affection towards children may be abusive. *Statistically, though a majority of those who perpetrate have experienced some form of trauma, most survivors of CSA DO NOT go on to perpetrate CSA.*
- May be suspicious of others, especially authority figures
The purpose of this list is to validate and provide information. In many instances when reviewing this list with a survivor they often tell me they feel less crazy, and feel relief that there is a reason why they’ve been struggling. When you go to the doctor with 6 different symptoms and the doctor comes back with one diagnosis, things become clearer, and you start to understand why you were experiencing those symptoms. The same applies here. Learning about what you’re dealing with can make things feel more manageable and survivors can feel empowered that they are taking steps towards healing.
Feel free to contact me with any questions, concerns, or if you’d like to work together. If you are in Vancouver, BC, we are always accepting referrals for the Survivors Group for female adult survivors of CSA.
Helen Thomas MC, RCC, LPC