Sexual Abuse/Trauma

Children respond to sexual assault in many different ways. It depends on their age, gender, personality and family circumstances.

What is Sexual Abuse/Trauma?

Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors.

In general, no thought is given to what effect this behavior may have on the child. The abuser does not care about the reactions or choices of the child. Researchers estimate that about one out of six boys and one out of four girls have been sexually abused.

Children respond to sexual assault in many different ways. It depends on their age, gender, personality and family circumstances.

If a child says she or he has been abused, the first thing to remember is to try to stay calm. You need to reassure the child that what happened is not his or her fault, and that you believe them. That you are proud he or her had the courage to tell you, and that you are there to keep him or her safe.

Take your child to see a mental health and/or medical professional. The Center for Family Safety and Healing can help. Learn more here

What symptoms should you look for?                        

Child sexual abuse can be hard to detect. The abuse often occurs in secret, and there is not always physical proof.

Primary symptoms of sexual abuse trauma in children and adolescents include:

Mental health problems

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fear
  • Somatic complaints and nightmares
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Habit disorders (biting, rocking)
  • Extreme fear of being touched
  • Unwillingness to submit to physical examination

Sexualized behavior

  • Sexualized play with dolls
  • Excessive or public masturbation
  • Requesting sexual stimulation from adults or other children
  • Age-inappropriate sexual knowledge

Behavioral problems

  • Withdrawal and mistrust of adults
  • Aggression
  • Behavioral problems in school
  • Delinquency
  • Regressive behavior (including incontinence, tantrums, and whining)
  • Running away
  •  Self harm

What are the Risks if Sexual Abuse Trauma Goes Untreated?

If the trauma from sexual abuse goes untreated, the symptoms can continue into adulthood:

  • Lingering PTSD and anxiety
  • Depression and thoughts of suicide
  • Hypersexuality
  • Difficulty setting safe limits with others (e.g., saying no to people)
  • Relationship problems
  • Poor body image and low self-esteem
  • Unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol, drugs, self-harm, or eating problems

Many of these behaviors are attempts to hide painful emotions related to the abuse. The severe consequences of childhood sexual abuse confirm the need for early intervention.

How is Sexual Abuse Trauma in Children Treated?

Children can and do recover from sexual abuse. The long-term effects are often compounded by secrecy, fear and denial of feelings.

That’s why it is crucial for victims of sexual abuse to receive counseling to decrease or prevent the symptoms of sexual abuse trauma. 

One of the most effective treatments for children with sexual abuse trauma is trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). Children are encouraged to talk about their memories of the traumatic experiences in a gradual manner. The goal is also to increase functioning and reduce further risks for victimization.

Other therapies that have proven effective include:

  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), intensive therapy that helps children learn to balance acceptance of past events with factors they can change in positive ways.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which uses sensory experiences while focusing on traumatic memories to help clients create new associations with those memories.

When their feelings tied to the trauma are explored, those feelings tend to become less powerful and their behavior becomes easier to manage. With professional guidance and parental understanding, children can regain a sense of safety and self-control.