Sexual Abuse

Modern statistics reported and studied for years tell us that even within this room one out of every three females will have been the victim of sexual abuse and one out of every seven men will have been victims of sexual abuse.

These statistics have held strong for years, but lets assume for the sake of comfort that these are a bit over stated; lets cut the statistics in half. One in every six females and one in every seven men are victims of sexual assault. This is still completely unacceptable and if this were a medical issue, we would call it an epidemic.

Another strong statistic we have is that child sexual abuse has been reported up to 80,000 times or more a year.  We also have clear evidence that the number of unreported instances is far greater, because the children, adults and families are too ashamed or afraid to tell anyone what has happened.

 It is clear that the problem should be identified, the abuse stopped, and the child should receive professional help because the long-term emotional and psychological damage of sexual abuse can be devastating.

We also know that child sexual abuse usually occurs by someone the child knows and trusts.  It can take place within the family, by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative or family friend.  It can also occur outside the home, i.e., by a friend, neighbor, day care person, teacher, clergy member, coach, baby sitter, or even a stranger. When sexual abuse has occurred, a child can develop a variety of distressing feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

Lets be really clear about something, No child is psychologically or emotionally prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. Even a two or three year old, who barely know the sexual activity is "wrong," will develop problems resulting from the inability to cope with the over stimulation. 

The child of five or older who knows and cares for the abuser becomes trapped between affection and loyalty for the person, and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with loss of love, loss of attention or affection, loss of gifts or may even threaten violence towards the child or someone the child knows like their parent or their pet.  Another powerful threat that the abuser might use is to threaten to abuse another sibling if the child resists.  Unfortunately many children  allow themselves to be abused to protect a bother or sister only to later find out that the brother or sister was being abuse all along.   

When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members, or be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told.  As extreme examples of this, many young girls are called “whores” by their mom’s when the mom discovers the father or step-father and child together.  In addition, many children are blamed by the family for the family breaking up or for putting the person they loved and needed in jail.  In fact many times the abuser is also the primary income in the home and the child will be blamed for the family being poor.  Many children who disclose abuse, almost immediately recant the disclosure after they see the effects it has on the family. 

A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness, a feeling of not being loveable, a deep emptiness inside and an abnormal or distorted view of themselves and of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, or overly sexualized or manipulative or can even become suicidal or very aggressive.

So, let us quickly look at each of these.  A child with low self-esteem, low self worth, feeling of inferiority or thinking that they are not worthy of love can cause the development of all sorts of unhealthy behaviors and ways of thinking in their life.  Just take a moment and think about how pervasive this could be in a person’s life.  The emptiness that occurs there is often filled by all sorts of addictive behaviors including eating disorders, alcohol abuse, prescription and or illegal drug abuse, cutting or self-injurious behaviors, aggression/violence, sexual addiction, pornography addiction, gambling addition, workaholism, obsessive and compulsive behaviors, over-achieving behaviors, as well as many others.  The source behind these behaviors is usually trying to have some control in life, self-hate, anger toward the world, numbing or avoiding pain, escaping reality, and trying to feel worthy, loveable or at least normal for at least a  short while.

Lets now turn to the sexual aspects of the abuse.  Some children who have been sexually abused have difficulty relating to others except on sexual terms.  On the other hand some will eventually have difficulty relating to anyone on a sexual level even within marriage.  Some sexually abused children become very sexually promiscuous, hypersexual, or in extreme cases can even become child abusers or prostitutes, or have other serious sexual problems when they reach adulthood.  Some adults will struggle with not making a connection between intimacy and sex.    

On the other hand, some will shy away from anything that even hints of sexual intimacy and some may even shame or attack others for normal sexual development.  Some may have serious sexual resistance even within marriage -- avoiding sex altogether or using it as a weapon or a tool in the relationship.   


Now turn to an overview of Indicators of sexual abuse. I always hesitate giving out a signs and symptoms list for fear of what people may do with this list.  So let me be clear that you must be extremely careful with this list as none of these signs mean that any particular person is being abused nor does the absence of these signs mean that they are not.  In addition, often there are no obvious signs of child sexual abuse especially physical signs and some physical signs can only be detected on physical exam by a physician. However, with all that in mind, sexually abused children may develop the following traits:

  • unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature;

  • sexual acting out on other children;

  • unusual disclosures about their genitals;

  • depression or withdrawal from friends or family;

  • unusual anger or oppositional type behaviors;

  • unusual soiling or wetting problems;

  • sleep problems or nightmares;

  • fire setting, stealing, and/or other angry anti-social behaviors;

  • unusual aggressiveness;

  • seductiveness or sexually odd behaviors;

  • statements that their bodies are dirty or damaged,

  • fear that there is something wrong with them in the genital area;

  • refusal to go to school;

  • unexplained or unusual drop in grades;

  • unexplained drop in interest in activities they used to enjoy;

  • unusual avoidance of a particular person or place;

  • unusual delinquency and/or conduct problems;

  • unusual level of or increase in secretiveness;

  • aspects of sexual molestation in drawings, games, fantasies;

  • excessive masturbation;

  • regressed behaviors (acting like a younger child);

  • excessively mature behaviors (acting like an adult…);

  • suicidal thoughts, statements or behavior, or

  • certainly any disclosures of sexual abuse even if they seem unlikely

Again, the presence of any specific item does not indicate a child has been sexually molested, nor does the lack of any item mean the child has not been sexually molested.  This is meant to help guide adults and parents as to possible indicators.

Child sexual abusers can make the child extremely fearful of telling, and only when a special effort has helped the child to feel safe, can the child talk freely. If a child says that he or she has been molested, parents should try to remain calm and reassure the child that what happened was not their fault. Parents should seek a medical examination and psychological  consultation with a specialist in the area.


So, what can we do to prevent or lessen the chance of sexual abuse by doing the following:

       Pay very close attention to your child.  Learn to understand “the language of their eyes.”  Pay attention and become an expert at being able to recognize what your child does whenever anything unusual is going on, when they are scared, when they are hiding something, or when they need help but are afraid to ask.

       Do not over-react to things, so you do not increase your child’s reluctance to tell you something scary or shameful.

       Checking in on them at events, lessons, sports practices, friend's houses occasionally at unexpected times. This is so adults, older kids, and your child know that you might just show up at any time, they risk getting caught if they try anything inappropriate.

          Although we can not count on our children tell us about what is going on in their lives especially when abuse is occurring, it is still a good idea to tell children in age appropriate language that "if someone tries to touch your body and do things that make you feel funny, say “No” to that person and tell me right away" Also tell the child that they will not be in trouble and you will make sure everybody is safe.

       Let them know if they make a mistake and forget to say “No” or something bad happens anyway that you will love them and protect them and they will not be in trouble but they always need to tell you about things like that.    

       In addition, although this is a tricky one, Try Teaching children that respect does not mean blind obedience to adults and to authority, for example, don't tell children to, "Always do everything the teacher or baby-sitter tells you to do try instead to say things like “be good and do the right thing.”

       Of course, keep open lines of communication with your child, all your child's care takers, and your child's teachers so you are likely to hear about any unusual behaviors.

       Encourage professional prevention programs in the local school system and the community. Also, show no more fear or hesitation about bringing your child to see a therapist if you see unusual behavior, then you would about bringing them to a medical doctor if they were having unusual physical issues. 

Sexually abused children and their families need immediate professional evaluation and treatment. A child therapists can help abused children minimize the effects of the abuse, recover, heal and eventually move on.  They can help the child regain a sense of self-esteem, cope with feelings of guilt about the abuse, and begin the process of overcoming the trauma. Such treatment can help reduce the risk that the child will develop serious problems as an adult.  At the Counseling Corner we have professionals with extensive training and expertise in treating childhood sexual abuse.