If you are the parent or loved one of a child whose been sexually abused, you might be interested in this information about the psychological effects of sexual abuse on children. I specialized in  child sexual abuse for the early part of my career and developed this list as a training resource for foster parents and for the child advocacy center in the local area I live in that I created. 

Below, some of the effects are listed, and some suggestions are offered to help you assist your child in the healing process. This information should not take the place of that given to your by your child's therapist. All children who are sexual abuse victims should have the opportunity to see a therapist.

Psychological effects of sexual abuse on children #1

 Sexually abused children have difficulty knowing who to trust

Sexually abused children are confused around issues of trust. These children may trust too little or trust too much. The experience with the perpetrator may cause them to trust people who will abuse them again. The abuse also may have the effect of mistakenly teaching these children that no one will keep them safe, tell them the truth, or do what they say.

Parents can help by:

  • Be honest, dependable, and predictable. Don't make promises you can't keep.
  • Communicate openly. Work to be honest and open with your child. Encourage your child to keep no secrets from you.
  • Create rules and structure. Sexually abused children may need more structure after abuse has happened.
  • Keep the child safe from future harm.
  • Be a protector, a limit setter, and a boundary reinforcer.
  • Discuss trustworthy versus untrustworthy behavior in every day conversation

Psychological effects of sexual abuse on children #2

Sexually abused children often feel responsible for the abuse.

  • They may feel they could have or should have stopped the abuse.
  • They may be confused about the sexual abuse because it felt good physically. Children often become sexually aroused after repeated abuse, and perpetrators use this to reinforce the idea that "they asked for it."
  • They may think they are responsible for what happened when they were told ( my family breaking up, my parents getting in trouble, or the perpetrator getting in trouble). Often, it is the case that there are long-term ramifications after a disclosure is made.
  • They may feel guilty and responsible for what happens to the perpetrator after the disclosure. Many children who reach this point will recant their allegations in hopes that things can be restored to the way they were before the disclosure.

Parents can help by:

  • Please help your child to understand it was not within their power to prevent the abuse.
  • Demonstrate appropriate roles ( i.e., the child does not meet parents' needs, parents meet child's needs).
  • Reinforce that adults are responsible for meeting their own needs.

Psychological effects of sexual abuse on children # 3

Children who are sexually abused may have an altered and distorted sense of themselves and their bodies.

These children frequently see themselves as markedly different from their peers, and as adults report that they felt dirty, damaged or spoiled.

Parents can help by:

  • Understanding your child is not damaged, that they can heal and develop into healthy adults. Be aware of your own feelings and seek help if you are struggling with this same reaction.
  • Involve your child in normal activates encourage them to do well at the stuff that normal kids do.
  • Teach your child that they are not what happened or what was done to them.

Psychological Effects of Sexual abuse on Children #4 

Children who are victims of sexual abuse often have difficulty with Anxiety and Fear

Children may develop phobic reactions to the event, the offender, and other aspects of the abuse. They may also develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The most disruptive long-term effect of this stress response is that they may learn to avoid and dissociate. 

Parents can help by:

  • Working with your child's therapist on these issues. There should be close communication between yourself and your child's therapist.
  • You may need to put special plans in place to help case the child's anxiety. For example:
  • Reassure your child they are safe.
  • Make a ritual out of locking the doors.
  • Buy an alarm system.
  • Check on them if they are afraid at night.

Psychological effects of sexual abuse on children #5 Anger, depression, regression other emotional reactions to the abuse manifest themselves as problematic behaviors. 

These are usually issues that you can work on with your child's  therapist.

Psychological effects of sexual abuse on children #6

Children who are victims of sexual abuse have cognitive distortions or misunderstandings about how the world works due to the abuse.

Therapy is a good place to work through this for you and your child. Below are some common cognitive distortions children may have.

  • They may not understand appropriate touch
  • They may not understand it's not okay for adults to have sex with children
  • They may not have a sense of space and physical or emotional boundaries
  • They may have a distorted idea about how children relate to adults or other children
  •  They may need to learn special skills for keeping themselves safe in the future

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Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.