The Trauma of Child Sexual Abuse and How to Find Help
Every nine minutes a child is sexually abused, and 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. It’s an unspeakable crime, and a sad reality, but with children flocking to the internet, this is happening more frequently every day. Many don’t understand the lifelong impacts of child sexual abuse, which causes trauma that will live on through adulthood. It can be debilitating if not properly treated, so it’s crucial for a child to find therapeutic help early.
The Trauma of Child Sexual Abuse
Dr. Celine Hamilton, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, described the experience of child sexual abuse as a “complete lack of control.”
“The trauma children endure is a violation of their bodily integrity. Hamilton said. “They have a breach of trust. Abusers are usually [90% of the time] someone they know, and children experience a loss of a significant connection to someone who was close. This loss can manifest as grief, but there is also physical trauma.”
Kids who are sexually abused might have literal pain. The physical aspect of the abuse lingers in the form of elevated stress hormones, and may cause chronic muscular pain, abdominal pain, constipation, or poor sleep with nightmares.
“They can develop a depleted immune system because of the stress hormones circulating in their bodies,” Dr. Hamilton explained. “This can cause over and under eating, hormonal dysregulation, headaches, or school refusal. There’s a whole cascade of effects of the sexual trauma on their bodies and lives.”
From an emotional perspective, children who survive sexual abuse may experience panic attacks, shortness of breath, PTSD, anxiety and depression, and shame. They may even show fear or anxiety around the perpetrator or the environment in which they were abused.
“When children are abused very young and reach the age of the abuser, they sometimes develop renewed traumatic memories of the event,” said Dr. Hamilton. “Once a child hits puberty and has to address their normal sexual feelings, this can also result in renewed trauma.”
Can Trauma Be Cured?
Dr. Hamilton says ‘yes’.
“It’s key for children of childhood sexual abuse to receive trauma focused therapy that addresses the abuse specifically, however every person is not ready to address the sexual abuse at the same time,” she explained. “A lot of children will be placed in therapy but don’t want to talk and they may not be ready. Processing it is important for future emotional and sexual relationship help.”
But there is hope.
“A child will never forget sexual abuse; it will never be gone from their memory,” Dr. Hamilton said. “They can move forward though, and have healthy emotional and sexual relationships. The brain is fantastic and can heal with treatment.”
How Can Parents Help a Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused?
If you are a parent and suspect or know your child has been abused, Dr. Hamilton recommends responding with love, not fear.
“Express support and belief. Hold them,” she explained. “Reassure them you will love and care for them, that this does not affect the way you feel about them, and that nothing will change in your relationship. Make sure they know you will do whatever you can to support their healing and growth and continue to protect them.”
Then it’s time to report the abuse to law enforcement, and find help. We recommend the resources Darkness to Light provides to help point families in the direction of support groups, shelters if necessary to flee from an abuser, legal help, and medical and treatment resources
Get Support and #JoinTheFight
If your family has been affected by this horrific crime, you’re not alone. Our blog features stories from brave survivors who have used their voice to speak about the unspeakable.
But we won’t stop at talking about child sexual abuse – we’re fighting daily to end it. It takes a network to defeat this global phenomenon, and we can’t do it without help.
We build technology that’s provided to law enforcement free of charge to help them identify and arrest online predators with a sexual interest in children. And we know that 85% of these online predators are also abusing children in real life.
Our work has prevented more than 711,000 cases of child sexual abuse, sparing nearly three quarters of a million children from the trauma and lifelong struggle Dr. Hamilton described.