Child sexual abuse often results in a range of thought processes and emotions in adult survivors, which can be important to identify either in yourself or in others, when abuse has occurred.
In this blog article we set out some of these common thought processes and emotions, and describe the important factors in psychological therapy or counselling to help in supporting adult survivors of sexual abuse in their recovery. Ultimately the decision to get therapy is for the survivor to take, on their own timeframe.
1. Defining child sexual abuse
In many cases, adult survivors of child sexual abuse are not fully aware of what occurred, and that the abuse was wrong. We will discuss some of the emotions that lead to this below. What is being talked about, then, when discussing child sexual abuse? The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) defined child sexual abuse as:
Any act which exposes a child to, or involves a child in, sexual processes beyond his or her understanding, or contrary to accepted community standards.
Child sexual abuse is also often accompanied by physical and emotional abuse. Where it occurs at an institution, such as a church or government facility for children, it may be referred to as ‘institutional abuse.’
2. How child sexual abuse impacts adult survivors
In How Can You Help Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse? we looked at some of the devastating impacts that child sexual abuse has on survivors throughout their lives. While every survivor is affected differently, common consequences for survivors relate to:
· Mental health. This may include post-traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD’), depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation;
· Physical health. These may result directly from the abuse, such as where the abuse has had a substantial effect on a child’s cognitive development;
· Culture. This can include, for example, a rejection or alienation from a survivor’s religious or faith community;
· Economic disadvantage. It is common for survivors to experience increased economic disadvantage throughout their lives. `
3. What are some of the emotions and thought processes associated with child sexual abuse?
Beverly Engel has set out in Psychology Today some of the common emotions or thought processes experienced by adult survivors of child sexual abuse. These include:
· Confusion: Many survivors are not sure exactly how to interpret what happened to them and whether it counts as abuse. For example, some children might confuse a pleasurable sensation with consent, or question whether they invited the abuse. Other survivors may not have a clear memory of what occurred due to ‘dissociation’ – this is a disconnection between an individual’s thoughts and feelings, and their sense of self. This is a common way in which the human body tries to cope with what has occurred;
· Denial. Survivors may deny that there was a physical act of abuse, or deny that what happened counts as abuse. Denial, like dissociation, can be a defence mechanism that is used in order to help deal with trauma;
· Shame. Survivors sometimes feel a deep sense of shame over what has occurred. This may happen because the survivor is aware that something inappropriate has occurred, and they report feeling ‘tainted’ or ‘dirty’ as a result;
· Fear. Survivors may be afraid of how the perpetrator will respond if they talk about the abuse. Or they may be scared of societal judgement/the judgement of others towards them;
· Desire to protect the perpetrator. In most cases, the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are well-known by the survivors. The perpetrator could still be a loved one, and the survivor may not want them to experience the consequences of the abuse becoming widely known.
4. The important factors in speaking about what happened
Every survivor deals with what happened in their own way, and in their own time. However, there are demonstrable psychological benefits to individuals who feel able to talk about it, in a supportive environment. Conversely, not talking about it can further compound the negative effects of child sexual abuse.
Some important factors in helping survivors talk about what happened include:
· Trust. Whether it is a therapist, counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist (‘therapist’), it has been shown to be important they have a relationship of ongoing trust with the survivor;
· Empathy. For survivors of child sexual abuse, it is crucial that the therapist’s demeanour is non-judgemental and validating;
· Listening. Survivors need to know that they are being genuinely listened to;
· Transparency in the relationship. As child sexual abuse is usually tied up with secrecy, it is crucial for survivors that therapy sessions are explained in an upfront and straightforward way;
The trauma of child sexual abuse can result in a range of emotions and thought process for adult survivors such as confusion, shame, denial and fear. Many (but not all) survivors find it helpful to talk about what happened. While supportive friends and family are important, ideally survivors who wish to speak out should seek professional psychological therapy and/or counselling. In many cases, this is available without cost. To find out more about support that may be available to you in New South Wales, useful resources include:
· the New South Wales Government’s Adult survivors of sexual abuse – getting help and seeking justice;
If it reaches the point where you would like to speak to a specialist sexual abuse lawyer about available options, please get in touch with us.