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The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse

The impacts and effects that childhood sexual abuse has on survivors in adulthood may be vast and varied. 

Experiencing sexual abuse in your childhood can have a wide range of effects on you in adulthood. Some adult survivors experience no or very few mental health problems, while others experience many and severe mental health problems. Sexual abuse is a kind of trauma and the effects of trauma include a complex combination of factors:

  • The amount of any kind of other trauma you may have experienced along with the sexual abuse
  • Your age when you experienced abuse
  • Your relationship with the person/s who abused you
  • How long the abuse lasted
  • How people in your life have responded to your disclosures (whether you've been believed)

Some of the most common effects you experience may be as follows:

  • Fear. Your abuser may have sworn you to secrecy or threatened you and members of your family, they may have told you that if you tell something bad will happen. Sexual abuse is usually accompanied by coercion, bribery, physical and emotional abuse and threats. You would have been afraid to tell because of what the consequences might be. e.g. punishment, blame, abandonment or not being believed.
  • Helplessness/powerlessness. You may have felt as a child that you had no control over your own life or even over your own body. You may have felt that you had no choices available to you.
  • Guilt and Shame. You may have known something was wrong and blamed yourself. Your abuser may have encouraged you to feel that the abuse was your fault and you may have felt like a bad person.
  • Responsibility. Your abuser most likely made you feel responsible for keeping the abuse a secret. You may even have felt like it was your responsibility to keep the family together and the burden of this responsibility interferes with experiencing a normal childhood.
  • Isolation. Abuse survivors often feel 'different' from other children. They usually have to keep secrets and manage a lot of stress alone. This may have isolated you from non-offending parents and brothers and sisters.
  • Betrayal. Children who are abused feel betrayed because they are dependent upon adults for nurturing and protection and the abuser was probably someone who you should have been able to love and trust. You may also feel betrayed by a non-abusing parent who you feel failed to protect you.
  • Anger. Not surprisingly this is one of the strongest feelings which you may have about your abuse. You may feel anger against the abuser and also against others who you feel failed to protect you.
  • Sadness. You may feel grief due to a sense of loss, especially if the abuser was loved and trusted by you. You may grieve your lost innocence or the fact that you had to grow up too fast.
  • Flashbacks. These can be like nightmares which happen while you are awake. They are a re-experiencing of the sexual abuse and you may experience all the feelings again which you felt at the time of the abuse. This can feel terrifying
  • Loss of trust in others
  • Impact on relationships:  survivors relationships may be characterised by lower relationship satisfaction, more overall discord, an increased risk of domestic violence and greater likelihood of separation and divorce
  • Increased risk taking and low self worth

Psychological effects:  whilst some survivors may experience no or few issues related to the abuse, survivors of sexual abuse are generally more likely to develop psychological disorders in adulthood. This may include one or a combination of the following:

  • Depression or feeling 'low'
  • Post Traumatic Stress
  • Low self esteem
  • Eating disorders
  • Drug addiction or alcohol use / dependency
  • Suicide attempts / self harm and self mutilation
  • Anxiety
  • Dissociative disorders or episodes of dissociating or 'splitting out'
  • Personality Disorders
  • Psychosis
  • Bi-polar disorders
  • Adults with a history of abuse as a child, especially sexual abuse, are more likely than people with no history of abuse to become frequent users of GP, emergency and medical care services

Adults with a history of child sexual abuse are more likely than the general population to experience physical health problems including unexplained pain, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, arthritis, headaches, gynaecological problems, stroke, hepatitis and heart disease.


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The Survivors in Transition (SiT) website is an information and signposting resource, neither SiT nor its affiliated staff or volunteers take responsibility for any information that is out of date or inaccurate. Some of the content on the website may contain triggers and we suggest it is used with due care.
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