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Childhood Sexual Abuse & Adult Survivors

In the United States alone millions of the reports made alleging a child is being sexually abused are substantiated. The prevalence and frequency of child sexual abuse (CSA) is difficult to determine because it is often underreported. However, experts agree that the incidence is far greater than what is and has been reported to authorities. To add to the mounting uncertainty surrounding the prevalence of CSA, it is also not uniformly defined, so statistics may vary. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often experience challenges establishing, maintaining, and trusting others. Opening up to others, exposing vulnerabilities can be terrifying for most survivors. Trying to form an intimate relationship may lead to frightening missteps and confusion. Not surprisingly, survivors often believe no one can be completely trusted and a loving attachment is not possible. Unfortunately, following a sexual assault many feel they are somehow damaged or flawed in some way, unworthy of truly being loved. Thoughts like these can wreak havoc in relationships throughout life.

When trauma occurs during early development many “normal” developmental milestones can be interrupted or negatively impacted. Sexual trauma suffered in childhood can be the sources of overwhelming fear, anxiety, depression, feelings of hopelessness/helplessness, self-doubt, low self-esteem, mood dysregulation, etc. Therapeutic intervention and counseling is needed to manage trauma following sexual assault. It is important for victims, especially child victims to understand they are not at fault for the abuse, process their feeling appropriately, and learn appropriate coping techniques to manage negative feelings. Counseling may be a lengthy process for some survivors as they age, enter different developmental stages, and advance toward the ages that romantic relationships are typically expected to begin. Unresolved childhood sexual trauma can create barriers for many survivors in adulthood leading to problems establishing and building relationships, memory and other cognitive issues, increased self-doubt, sexual dysfunctions, etc. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often struggle with making sense of their inner world or experience significant challenges relating to others. Even if the survivor finds a safe, loving partner later in life, the self-limiting scripts stay with them.

Trauma- Behavioral and Emotional Impact

Too often, many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse will re-live the trauma associated with the abuse over and over again in their mind, making it difficult to move beyond the pain of the past. It may come as no surprise that many survivors of sexual abuse will find themselves in abuse or otherwise unhealthy relationships in adulthood. Unfortunately, many survivors may drift from one unhealthy relationship to the other without fully understanding why they feel drawn to aggressive and dysfunctional people. This often happens without survivor recognizing or understanding why they are making specific romantic life choices. Beneath awareness is a drive to revisit unresolved trauma, and finally make things right. Of course, childhood wounds cannot be repaired this way unless there are two willing partners working on changing those cycles. But if these forces remain unnoticed, survivors can get caught in a cycle of abuse.

Survivors of Childhood Sexual Trauma May Experience the Following:

  • Sleep/eating disturbances
  • Feelings of hopelessness/helplessness
  • Recurrent flashes and or images of the abuse
  • Panic attacks
  • Low self-esteem/ self-doubt
  • Struggle with depression
  • PTSD
  • Develop impulsive behavior
  • Struggle with irritable mood
  • Seek or carry out the adverse behavior they experienced as a child
  • Suicidal thoughts/ideations
  • Have challenges related to bonding with others
  • Experience sexual dysfunctions

Trauma- Romantic Relationship Impact

  • Inability to completely bond with romantic partner
  • Difficulty establishing and building trust
  • Engage in emotionally fueled arguments
  • Struggle with lingering doubt that his/her partner doesn’t really love them
  • Withdrawal or distant, unresponsive behavior
  • Difficulty managing and addressing conflict
  • Communication issues
  • Difficulty accepting love, despite repeated reassurance
  • Heightened or otherwise inappropriate reactions to common relationship issues
  • Ongoing assumption they have no one they can truly count on, partner is against them

Adult survivors of childhood sexual trauma would benefit from having a good support system, assistance with processing negative feelings, help identifying appropriate strategies to deal with any future issues should they arise, receiving psychoeducation to better understand the nature of trauma, making a commitment to take better self-care.

Helpful Tips for Partners:

  • Recognize this will not be a quick or easy “fix”, your partner needs time and help managing negative feelings
  • Understand your partner may experience challenges building trust
  • Do not take it personally when they question your love for him/her
  • Remind your partner that he/she is safe
  • Try to stay in the here and now
  • Avoid pursing a disagreement when emotions are heightened

Learning how to manage communication helps couples restore calm and provide comfort as their understanding of trauma grows. Communication can also help a partner comfort a loved one during a flashback. Healing childhood wounds takes careful, hard work. But it is possible to replace old rules with time. Finding a therapist who can recognize and acknowledge the hurt, which the survivor has carried alone for so long, is essential to repairing deep wounds. The more we understand about the impact of trauma, the more we can help those touched by it to go beyond surviving, and find the healing security of healthier loving relationships.