The Effects of Child Abuse Depend on a Variety of Factors
We have learned from many people’s experiences and a great deal of research that the effects of abuse and neglect depend on a variety of factors. Research has shown that some factors influence negative outcomes, but there are a variety of other factors that are harder to measure for research purposes and/or may be very important for some people but not others.
Factors research has shown to influence the effects of abuse:
- Age of the child when the abuse happened. Younger is usually more harmful, but different effects are associated with different developmental periods.
- Who committed the abuse. Effects are generally worse when it was a parent, step-parent or trusted adult than a stranger.
- Whether the child told anyone, and if so, the person’s response. Doubting, ignoring, blaming and shaming responses can be extremely harmful – in some cases even more than the abuse itself.
- Whether or not violence was involved, and if so, how severe.
- How long the abuse went on.
Fear. The offender may swear the child to secrecy and say that if they tell something bad will happen. Sexual abuse is usually accompanied by coercion, bribery or threats. The child is afraid to tell because of what the consequences might be; e.g., punishment, blame, abandonment or not being believed.
Helplessness/powerlessness. Children in this situation often feel that they have no control over their own lives or even over their own bodies. They feel that they have no choices available to them.
Guilt and Shame. The child knows something is wrong and blames him or herself not others. The offender will often encourage the child to feel that the abuse is his or her fault and sometimes s/he will feel that s/he is a “bad” person.
Responsibility. The offender often makes the child feel responsible for keeping the abuse a secret. Sometimes the child also feels responsible for keeping the family together and the burden of this responsibility interferes with experiencing a normal childhood.
Isolation. Incest victims feel different from other children. They must usually be secretive. This even isolates them from non-offending parents and brothers and sisters.
Betrayal. Children feel betrayed because they are dependent upon adults for nurturing and protection and the offender is someone who they should be able to love and trust. They may also feel betrayed by a non-offending parent who they feel has failed to protect them.
Anger. Not surprisingly this is one of the strongest feelings which many children have about their sexual assault. Children may feel anger against the perpetrator and also against others who they feel failed to protect them.
Sadness. Children may feel grief due to a sense of loss, especially if the perpetrator was loved and trusted by the child.
Flashbacks. These can be like nightmares which happen while the child is awake. They are a re-experience of the sexual assault and the child may experience all the feelings again which they felt at the time.
Long Term Effects may include:
- Depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping.
- Low self-esteem.
- “Damaged goods” syndrome; i.e., negative body image due to self-blame. This may be intensified if physical pain was experienced during the abusive incidents.
- Dissociation from feeling.
- Social isolation.
- Relationship problems such as an inability to trust, poor social skills or a reluctance to disclose details about themselves.
- Self destructive behaviour such as substance abuse or suicide attempts.
- Sexual difficulties such as fear of sex or intimacy, indiscriminate multiple sex partners or difficulty in reaching orgasm.
- Parenting problems such as fear of being a bad parent or fear of abusing the child or being overprotective.
- An underlying sense of guilt, anger or loss.
- “Flashbacks” and/or panic attacks.
(CSOM-Center for Sex Offender Management-US Dept of Justice)