Child sexual abuse leads to severe adult psychological problems

By Martha Jette

January 23, 2014

According to Watton on the Web, a Christian resource center for child abuse victims, there are currently “60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America today.” According to various studies, these victims suffer from a wide variety of problems from low self-esteem to suicidal tendencies.

Psychological Problems

According to the Child Abuse Task Force children can be “so traumatized by sexual abuse that years may go by” before he or she is even able to talk about what happened let alone the reasons why. The effects of child sexual abuse include “loss of trust, feelings of guilt and/or self-abusive behavior.” This type of victimization can also lead to “antisocial behavior, depression, identity confusion, loss of self-esteem and other serious emotional problems.”

A 1978 research article by Tsai and Wagner noted on The National Center for Biotechnology Information web site also reveals that child sexual abuse victims are prone to have problems with interpersonal relationships as adults due to “an underlying mistrust.” Furthermore, the article noted that adult incest victims often feel “ambivalence, hatred and betrayal” toward their parents. This article adds that there is a “universally experienced” feeling of guilt among child sex abuse victims due to previous feelings of “sexual pleasure.”

Yet another study by A. Browne & D. Finkelhor entitled Impact of Child Sexual Abuse: a review of the research (1986) notes that these victims, who are now adults, could be suffering from a variety of long-term effects of abuse including anxiety, fear, depression, poor self-esteem, hostility, anger, sexual deviations, problems forming close relationships and substance abuse.

Eating Disorders

According to Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, et al, of the University of Minneapolis, “adolescent girls and boys” with “a history of sexual or physical abuse appears to increase the risk of disordered eating behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or use of laxatives to avoid gaining weight.”

Her study entitled Disordered eating among adolescents: Associations with sexual/physical abuse and other familial/psychosocial factors found that “those at increased risk for disordered eating were respondents who had experienced sexual or physical abuse and those who gave low ratings to family communication, parental caring and parental expectations.” She added, “In light of these findings, the researchers conclude that strong familial relationships may decrease the risk for disordered eating among youth reporting abuse experiences.”

Substance Abuse

A study by Dr. Kenneth S. Kendler, et al, of the Medical College of Virginia Commonwealth University revealed, “Young girls who are forced to have sex are three times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders or abuse alcohol and drugs in adulthood, than girls who are not sexually abused.” Dr. Kendler added, “Psychiatric disorders were from 2.6 to 3.3 times more common among women” who were forced into intercourse… “and the risk of substance abuse was increased more than fourfold.”

In a study entitled Childhood Sex Abuse Increases Risk for Drug Dependence in Adult Women, Dr. Kendler noted, “Overall, childhood sexual abuse was more strongly associated with drug or alcohol dependence than with any of the psychiatric disorders.”

Risky Sexual Behavior

Dr. Larry K. Brown, a psychiatrist with the Bradley-Hasbro Children’s Research Center in Providence, Rhode Island, conducted a study along with three other researchers entitled Impact of Sexual Abuse on the HIV-Risk-Related Behavior of Adolescents in Intensive Psychiatric Treatment. Listed on the 2000 American Journal of Psychiatry, this study “compared the HIV-risk-related behaviors and attitudes of adolescents with and without a history of sexual abuse, who were in intensive psychiatric treatment.”

The study found that among adolescents who were sexually active and with a history of abuse “reported significantly less condom self-efficacy (emotional ability to use condoms), less knowledge of HIV, less impulse control, less frequent use and purchase of condoms, and significantly higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases than their peers.” This study noted, “Sexual abuse was associated with HIV-risk-related attitudes and behaviors among adolescents in psychiatric treatment” and should therefore be viewed as “a marker for sexual behavior that puts adolescents at risk for HIV.”

Dr. Brown concluded, “These results suggest two things. Abused kids need adequate counseling around abuse issues. A lot of these kids keep re-experiencing the anxiety and trauma for years.” He added, “Most therapy does not address current sexual behavior” and the anxieties that sexually abused adolescents experience.”

Criminal Behavior

A 1995 article by Cathy Spatz Widom entitled Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse – Later Criminal Consequences for the National Institute of Justice states: “People who were abused and neglected in childhood are more likely than those who were not to become involved in criminal behavior, including violent crime, later in life.”

The brief also states that sexual and other abuse “ may alter a brain region… Many women and men who have been subjected to severe physical or sexual abuse during childhood suffer from long-term disturbances of the psyche. They may be invaded by nightmares and flashbacks – much like survivors of war – or, conversely, may freeze into benumbed calm in situations of extreme stress.”

Widom suggested that these victims “may also have a smaller hippocampus,” which she describes as “the part of the brain that deals with short-term memory and possibly the encoding and retrieval of long-term memory,” which researchers say could cause a flood of hormones to the brain” after “stressful episodes.” Dissociation and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she said, “are not sharply separated and often alternate in the same individual. Dissociation, often employed by children who cannot escape from the threat of abuse, is a means of mentally withdrawing from a horrific situation by separating it from conscious awareness. The skill allows the victim to feel detached from the body or self, as if what is happening is not happening to her or him.”

Multiple Personality Disorder

Citing a 1995 article in Scientific American, N.Y, Widom added that in children who suffer repeated abuse “dissociation prevents memories from being integrated into consciousness and can lead to an altered sense of self.” She added that this could lead “in extreme cases falling prey to multiple personality disorder (MPD). Adults may continue to use dissociation as a coping mechanism. Once dissociation or PTSD develops, the majority of psychological symptoms and the hormonal profile are very resistant to treatment.

Suicidal Tendencies

Even more serious is a tendency of child abuse victims to consider and/or carry out suicide. In a study entitled Suicidal thoughts and behaviours in former sexual abuse victims by John Briere of the Harbor-U.C.I.A. Medical Center and Marsha Runtz of the University of Manitoba it states: “The relationship between childhood sexual abuse and subsequent suicidality was examined in 195 women presenting to the Crisis Intervention program of a community health centre. As predicted, former sexual abuse victims were considerably more likely to have made at least one suicide attempt in the past (55%) than were non-abused clients (23%), and were more likely to report suicidal ideation upon intake.”

Further analysis reveals, “sexual abuse was specifically associated with suicide attempts, which occurred in childhood or adolescence. Among former sexual abuse victims, greater suicidality was correlated with multiple perpetrators, concurrent physical abuse, and sexual intercourse.” The study noted that due to feelings of low self-esteem, lack of power and difficulty with adult relationships, a victim might feel led toward “self-destructiveness.”

According to several surveys – Bagley, 1992l ;Bagley, 1991; Finkelhor et al. 1990; Whitlock & Gillman, 1989 – “the earlier such incidents are reported the less likely victims are to suffer long-term adverse effects.” A report on Prevent Abuse Now states, “Early identification of sexual abuse victims appears to be crucial to the reduction of suffering of abused youth and to the establishment of support systems for assistance in pursuing appropriate psychological development and healthier adult functioning.”

The report also notes, “As long as disclosure continues to be a problem for young victims, then fear, suffering, and psychological distress will, like the secret, remain with the victim. According to data released by the Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health, “More than 7 out of 10 American adolescents with mental health problems are getting no care.”

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