Healing From Childhood Sexual Trauma
Past generations usually chose to cover up or deny the existence of childhood sexual abuse. This policy of silence and the resulting ignorance of the devastating consequences of childhood sexual exploitation created an environment that allowed the abuse to proliferate.
Childhood sexual trauma can have a profoundly devastating effect upon an individual. Some people appear to be relatively asymptomatic while others can be incapacitated to varying degrees.
Sexual trauma can interrupt many of the normal developmental processes of childhood. Sexually abused children often exhibit emotional or behavioral characteristics that indicate distress. Children may fail to thrive as a result of the trauma. Children are affected in many different ways by sexual trauma. Some experience learning disabilities that interfere with their ability to concentrate, learn or remember. Others act out or become aggressive. Some children may experience depression, feel a sense of helplessness or tend to isolate from others.
The suffering continues throughout one’s life. Many adults who were sexually abused as children experience depression, anxiety and in some instances an overwhelming sense of panic. They may also be prone to nightmares and flashbacks. Many suffer from gastrointestinal disturbances, chronic bladder and yeast infections.
There are many contributing factors that determine the extent of the negative impact of childhood sexual trauma. Children are more likely to suffer to a greater extent if the perpetrator is a close relative such as a father as opposed to a neighbor. Children who were sexually abused during earlier stages of development have fewer resources which would allow them to cope and may suffer more adverse consequences. Sexual abuse may occur as a single incident or it may have continued over a number of months or years. Sexual violation can also range from inappropriate comments to penetration. The wounds incurred from as a result of childhood sexual trauma are often compounded by other forms of stress or trauma.
Other influences may help to lessen sexual trauma’s destructive impact. Adults who are believing, caring and respectful in response to a child’s disclosure of sexual abuse can help to mitigate the negative impact of the trauma. Children who come from loving and supportive families are more likely to have internalized other resources that would better enable them to cope.
Memories and emotions associated with sexual trauma are stored within the body. We may feel tense and irritable as the feelings and memories begin to surface. Many cope by pushing the feelings back down inside of themselves.
Traumatic memories often become distorted and that may serve to protect us from even more disturbing memories. It’s common for our minds to combine separate events so that it appears as if they took place during a single incident. Our minds can sometimes block out all awareness of the traumatic experience at the time of the abuse and that may be necessary to help us to survive. But that can make it difficult to recover the memories and emotions later in life as we begin to heal.
Some people experience full and vivid recall of what happened, while others may only be able to access fragments of memory. Feelings and memories usually become more accessible as one move further along in their healing process. Memories may first appear as fleeting images or flashbacks. Many doubt the validity of these memories as they begin to surface. Survivors may even question their own sanity in some instances.
Flashbacks are often experienced as vivid reproductions of the original trauma and the intensely overwhelming emotions associated with these experiences. Flashbacks tend to have uncontrollable, freighting and intrusive qualities about them. They are often triggered by sensations or situations that act as a reminder of the initial trauma. A person in the midst of a flashback can feel as if they are reliving the trauma all over again.
The shame associated with sexual trauma may cause some children to make up stories to hide their wounds or to protect their family’s secret. Children often feel that they are somehow responsible for what happened. They may feel that they are inherently bad, defective or abnormal. That may also be accompanied by an underlying sense of worthlessness. These feelings are often incorporated into their self image. They sometimes try so hard to be good to compensate for these feelings, but that only reinforces their deep underlying shame.
Children who receive adequate love and nurturance internalize a sense of love, trust and safety. That helps to create an underlying sense of well being. This foundation supports them as they go forward in their lives.
Sexually abused children find themselves at the mercy of destructive forces beyond their control. They receive a whole different message that tells them that the world is not a safe place. Their inability to stop the abuse may cause them to feel they are not capable of protecting themselves, and that they cannot direct or control their own lives.
Self awareness is first experienced through our bodies. The pain resulting from sexual trauma can make it very difficult for children to be present within their own bodies. Being aware of and connected to the body can become so unbearable that many children are forced to shut down or disconnect. That may result in a sense of alienation from the body. Continue reading