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The damage of sexual abuse is far reaching and can affect the child all of his or her life.

effects of child sexual abuse

No child is psychologically prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. Even a two or three year old, who cannot know that sexual activity is “wrong,”will develop problems resulting from the inability to cope with the over-stimulation.


Child sexual abuse can take place within the family, by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative; or outside the

home by a friend, neighbor, childcare person, coach, teacher, or random molester. However, when the sexual abuse has occurred, the child develops a variety of distressing feelings and thoughts.


When children are abused by adults who are supposed to protect them from harm, their ability to trust and rely on adults may be shattered. Knowing that the abuser is liked –or even loved – by other family members (ex: family friend, church leader or teacher) makes it all the more difficult for children to tell others about the abuse. Children who have been abused by a family member are more likely to blame themselves for the abuse than those who are abused by someone outside the family unit. This is particularly true of older children who may be all too aware of the effect that disclosing the abuse will have on other family members. 


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 violence or loss of love. 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.  


After disclosing, children and adolescents who have been sexually abused by a family member are often tormented by self doubt, self blame, fear of the abuser, and distress over what their disclosure has done to the family. Sometimes in a desperate attempt to make everything better in the family, they may change their story or even deny that the abuse occurred. 


Recanting, or “taking back” the disclosure is common and does not mean that children were lying about the abuse. When the abuse is caused by a family member, children may feel pressure to recant because of how the disclosure is affecting the family or because of lack of family support.


Sexual abuse of a child by a trusted adult also puts tremendous strain on relationships within the family. Some family members may find it hard to believe the abuser could do such a thing and take sides (or feel pressured to take sides) over who is telling the truth. Family members may also struggle with how to manage their divided loyalties toward the abuser and the victim. Even in families that accept that the abuse occurred, reactions to the abuser may run the gamut from “lock him up and throw away the key” to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Tensions may arise when different family members have different opinions about loyalty, fairness, justice, forgiveness, and responsibility.


A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal perspective on sexuality. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal.


Some children who have been sexually abused have difficulty relating to others except on sexual terms. Some sexually abused children talk about sexual things or try to make sex part of the topic, begin to act seductively, act out their abuse as child abusers or prostitutes, or have other serious problems when they reach adulthood.


NOTE: Often there are no physical signs of child abuse, or signs that only a physician can detect, such as changes in the genital or anal area.

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