Experience of Childhood Sexual Trauma

Individuals who have experienced sexual abuse can experience additional effects due the sexual nature of their experiences – additional shame, self-blame and self-hatred. They can describe feelings of being “damaged,” “different,” “tainted,” or that something is deeply wrong with them. This can be a direct result of the abusive messages directly given to them and/or their interpretation of the experience. The abuse can occur over a period of time in secret, is perpetrated by a trusted adult, and is a deep, dark secret the survivor may have hidden for a very long time. It is also the case that it can be so completely terrifying to consider that someone who is supposed to care for you is at the same time hurting you. This can result in a child blaming themselves for the abuse in order to protect their relationship with the attachment figure.

To be “informed about trauma” when working with individuals who have experienced abuse means to know the history of past and current abuse in the life of the person with whom you are working. This does not necessarily mean the person needs to go back and provide details of the abuse. However, being trauma-informed means understanding the role that violence and victimization plays in the lives of those who have experienced trauma, and allows for more holistic and integrative services (Harris & Fallot, 2001).

People who behave violently and abusively often make recurring statements to their victims that blame them and place them at the centre of the responsibility for the abuse. They say things like “You deserve this,” “I know you want this,” and “You asked for this.” Sometimes they say nothing, sometimes they apologize, make promises it won’t happen again, and even do kind and caring things for the child/adolescent. This can be extremely confusing and can often create significant feelings of shame.

Children cannot ask to be sexually abused, nor can they say “No!” to an adult or older person who has total control over them. Individuals who experience sexual abuse often live in fear, or are threatened in terrifying ways to ensure that they do not disclose the abuse. Often the threats can be more subtle and indirect. In a young person’s world, this may be all that they know. They obey the person who is abusing them because in many cases their very well-being and/or survival depends on it.

In addition, shame can also be a powerful component to maintaining silence. In some situations, disclosures can be met with disbelief and ridicule, which can then play a role in future disclosure.

These feelings and fears can be carried into adult life, as can the behaviours the person who experiences sexual abuse used to survive. Many individuals who experienced child abuse define themselves by these abusive experiences, and still live from day to day as if they are just surviving and are living in fear of further harm.

Self-destructive behaviours are common survival mechanisms. Self-harming, for example, is a coping mechanism developed to manage intense emotional pain resulting from the experience of being abused by those who were the most important people in the child’s life. Self-harming activities, such as cutting, burning and bruising parts of the body, can provide a temporary relief of the emotional pain. Following this short-term relief is an added layer of shame related to the selfharming  behaviour.

The horrific memories can accompany victims of child abuse throughout their lives, and are often manifested in nightmares and flashbacks that make them feel as if the abuse is happening again. This is the brain’s way of dealing with overwhelming experiences and feelings that must be processed, but survivors often avoid dealing with these feelings out of fear of losing control. A loving relationship is what is longed for, but can also be the most terrifying because the experience of childhood sexual trauma of the impact of the abuse on trust and intimacy. Navigating relationships can be very difficult and challenging for people who have experienced sexual abuse as a child. They often feel and behave in a way that makes them seem “unstable” because they have great difficulty regulating their emotional states, which swing from one extreme to another.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Complex PTSD) has been defined as the result of prolonged abuse that involves “characteristic personality changes, including deformations of relatedness and identity” (Herman, 1992). More recently, Complex PTSD has been defined as “cumulative forms of trauma and retraumatization that deprive victims of their sense of safety and hope, their connection to primary support systems and community, and their very identity and sense of self” (Courtois & Ford, 2013). Complex PTSD has also been described as what “occurs during a critical window of development in childhood, when self-definition and self-regulation are being formed” (Courtois & Ford, 2009).

Complex PTSD can occur:

  • the earlier the abuse was,
  • the more prolonged it was,
  • the closer the relationship with the person who acted abusively, and
  • the more severe the violence.

Chronic suicidal behaviours, self-harming behaviours, relationship problems, addictions and depression are commonly associated with this experience.

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