Childhood Sexual Abuse and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

***Trigger Warning: this article will address childhood sexual abuse and may not be suitable for all audiences.***

As our readers know by now, CPTSD Foundation is not afraid to tackle tough subjects that have for too long been considered taboo. This month’s articles will be about childhood sexual abuse and the recovery process to achieve a healthy and happy adult life.

This article will concentrate on what childhood sexual abuse is and how it relates to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).

It is simply human nature that no one wants to admit that children can and are sexually abused. After all, to admit that children are mistreated in such heinous ways makes us feel heartsick.

However, child sexual abuse does occur, and it leaves scars that will last a lifetime.

The only way to defeat childhood sexual abuse is to bring it out into the open, where it can be clearly seen (David et al., 2016).

The definition may seem a no-brainer to those in the know, but even those who have experienced sexual childhood trauma may have a narrow idea of what it is, and this can be a problem. Not understanding what childhood sexual abuse is can harm people because they do not understand that what they experienced was indeed abuse and not normal.

There are three types of sexual abuse of a child, contact, non-contact, and online.

Contact sexual abuse happens when an abuser makes physical contact with a child, including:

  • Touching the child in a sexual manner anywhere on the child’s body, whether the child is dressed or not
  • Using a part of the or an object to penetrate a child
  • Making a child undress
  • Making a child touch another person, including other children
  • Forcing a child to do sexual activities
  • Touching, kissing, or oral sex with a child (sexual abuse does not need to be penetrative.)

Non-contact abuse means a child is abused without being physically touched by an abuser. This includes in-person and online. Non-contact sexual abuse includes:

  • Exposing of genitalia to a child
  • Exposing breasts to a child
  • Showing a child pornography
  • Making a child watch sexual acts
  • Making a child masturbate
  • Forcing a child to make or view sexual images or videos
  • The distribution of images or videos of a child pornography
  • Forcing a child to carry out sexual conversations or activities online

Remember, a child is an innocent victim in all the above circumstances as they have no control over what an adult will do. They cannot get away or tell an adult no, so they are completely exonerated from any blame.

When child sexual abuse is mentioned, many people have an image in their minds of a deviant man dressed in ragged clothes with no job or living in the backwoods.

This description is wrong.

Child sexual abusers look like everyone else, often hold high-esteem jobs, and can be women. Sexual abusers cross all demographic lines, including income, race, sex, and where they live.

30–40% of child sexual abuse victims are abused by a close family member rather than a stranger, with 50% of victims being harmed by someone outside the family that the family knows and trusts, such as a pastor or a boy scout leader.

About 40% of child sexual abuse victims are abused by older or larger children that they know, with 50% of these children being under the age of 12.

The list of those who can and do sexually abuse children is long, with siblings, mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, and social leaders having been caught in the past doing just that.

The statistics of the number of children who are sexually abused before the age of 18 are staggering.

1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused

1 in 5 children are solicited for sex on the internet

Nearly 70% of all assault (this includes adults) happens to kids age 17 and under.

More than 20% of victims of childhood sexual abuse are the age of 8 or under.

Many victims of childhood sexual abuse will never disclose their abuse to anyone else, choosing instead to keep the secret their abuser told them they had to keep.

As adults, we must be diligent in watching over our children and those of our neighbors. If we recognize the following signs in a child, it is time to immediately get help. Even if you are wrong, it is better to err on the side of caution.

Some physical signs of childhood sexual abuse include:

  • A child having a sexually transmitted infection
  • Signs of damage to the child’s genital area such as unexplained bleeding, bruising,

or blood on sheets, clothing, or underwear.

Behavioral signs might include:

  • Knowledge of talk of sexual topics beyond the child’s years
  • Not talking as much as usual
  • Acting like they are keeping a secret
  • Having developed a fear of being left alone with certain people
  • Being afraid to be away from the child’s parents or caregivers (if it is a new behavior)
  • Sudden onset of thumb-sucking or bedwetting
  • Sexual behavior towards themselves of another child
  • Spending a lot of their time alone
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Trying to avoid bathing or removing their clothes

Emotional signs of sexual abuse of a child are as follows:

  • Increased aggression or change in mood and personality
  • Decrease in confidence
  • Decrease in self-image
  • A change in eating habits
  • Excessive fear or worry
  • Stomach aches and headaches that cannot be unexplained
  • Decrease in interest in activities, friends, and schoolwork
  • Nightmares
  • Self-harming behaviors

(RAINN)

If you recognize any of these signs in a child, please, do not hesitate to act.

If you recognize these signs from your childhood, chances are you were sexually abused as a child.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) forms in response to chronic traumatization over months or years. Sexual abuse of a child that is repeated and where the victim feels they cannot escape is often the trigger for CPTSD.

Those children who go through childhood sexual abuse when the brain is still developing and are just beginning to form who they are as a person can cause the child’s entire neurological and psychological development to be arrested.

Along with the sexual abuse, child victims may also suffer from neglect where they experience mixed affections from the perpetrator, thus forming a disorganized attachment disorder from the mixed messages they receive.

Adults who were sexually abused as children often grow up with symptoms that frequently interrupt day-to-day life. Emotional dysregulation is the primary culprit as survivors of childhood abuse who formed CPTSD have a horrible time with emotions, both experiencing and controlling them.

Many other victims of childhood sexual abuse and CPSD have persistent sadness, anger, and suicidal thoughts. It is common for survivors to re-experience their emotions from childhood in emotional flashbacks, where they feel the emotions they felt as children but do not experience the sights, smells, or sounds.

CPTSD and childhood sexual abuse are intimately linked, but both can be treated, and someone living with them can excel in life.

Whether you are reading this piece because you have been abused or know someone who was, it is important to remember that life goes on after sexual abuse.

You are NOT damaged goods, and your history does not define your present or your future.

Never, ever give up on yourself or someone you know who experienced childhood sexual abuse. There are hope and life afterward; I am a living example that this is true.

I was sexually abused when I was a child, from shortly after birth to 15, by a relative whom I loved very much. The things he did and the lack of parental recognition of what was going on locked me into a prison where I hid and pent up all my relative’s activities and how I felt about it.

I have formed complex post-traumatic stress disorder and a few other mental health disorders that have hampered my life in the past.

Today, after treatment, I am beyond surviving; I am thriving. I enjoy my life and, while acknowledging my past, do not live there any longer. I am moving forward because I sought treatment as an adult.

I tell you my story so you can understand that you too can live a happy and contented life after childhood sexual abuse and despite CPTSD.

“THE GOOD LIFE requires that we take pleasure in new things; A GOOD LIFE requires that we take pleasure in moments.

To enjoy THE GOOD LIFE, we have to get ahead; to enjoy A GOOD LIFE, we have to make the trip worthwhile.

THE GOOD LIFE is not supported by feeding our pocketbooks; A GOOD LIFE is supported by feeding our souls.” ~ Steve Goodier

References

David, O. Ezecki, A. Wapmuk, (2016). Child Sexual Abuse: The Hidden Epidemic. Nigerian Journal of Clinical & Biomedical Research. Vol. 7 №7: 6–15

Warning signs for young children. RAINN. Retrieved from: https://www.rainn.org/articles/warning-signs-young-children

Originally published at https://cptsdfoundation.org.

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.

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