Early experiences can greatly affect how a child or young person’s mind develops. When someone experiences abuse as a child it can shape their emotional development – affecting both their sense of self-worth and their ability to trust other people.
And while long-term effects differ from person-to-person, you may be experiencing one or more of the following. These may be mild, or, they could be having a significant impact on your day-to-day life. You can find information to help you take care of yourself and find ways of coping later in this section.
- Difficult emotions – feeling low, sad, anxious, angry or irritable sometimes. Mood swings which can include feelings of intense distress and possibly thoughts of suicide.
- Feeling alone and difficulty in having healthy relationships – because children who experienced sexual abuse are often left feeling let down or ‘betrayed’ by people that they trusted – as adults they can often find it very difficult to trust other people. They can fear getting hurt or rejected – and either isolate themselves from other people, or, become too clingy or over dependent. Some people expect to be ‘let down’ which can mean they’re more likely to be pulled into difficult or abusive relationships.
- Feelings of shame and guilt – a child who experienced sexual abuse is likely to have been manipulated or forced into keeping the abuse a secret – the abuser may even have tried to blame them for the abuse. As a result, feelings of shame, guilt and ‘being to blame’ for not stopping the abuse from happening, can become a central part of their self-image. This can especially happen if other people such as family members failed to protect the child from the abuse or reacted with shock or horror when told about what happened. Such feelings of shame can affect self-esteem – adult survivors can feel ‘useless’, ‘different’, ‘bad’, ‘dirty’, ‘not good enough’ or ‘worthless’ and these can become core self-beliefs. Survivors can also be overly self-critical, expecting too much of themselves known as ‘perfectionism’ or may not expect anything at all.
- Feeling powerless – finding it hard to say ‘no’ when necessary or asserting your own needs. Some survivors can react in other ways – by behaving aggressively, trying to control other people or by developing an eating disorder – all as a means of taking back some control.
- Sexual difficulties including problems with physical contact and intimacy. Sexual contact can become connected in a child’s mind with feelings of fear, shame and helplessness.
- Anxiety – experiencing trauma can make adult survivors more aware and fearful about possible danger. It can be common to feel anxious and fearful about bad things happening. Some survivors can experience hypervigilance – a state of feeling constantly ‘on guard’ and looking for potential threats, phobias and panic attacks.
- Nightmares and ‘Flashbacks’ which are very powerful memories of what happened feel very real and can be very distressing. A survivor may feel like the traumatic event is taking place again and may even be able to smell scents, hear sounds or feel pain that they experienced at the time. When someone experiences a distressing and traumatic experience the mechanism for sorting and storing memories can become overwhelmed and the mind is not able to process the experience, in the usual way. This means that the memory is still active and can be very easily triggered by anything that is a reminder of what happened – this could be a place, person, smell or sound. Survivors can also ‘relive’ what happened to them through distressing nightmares or might dream about being trapped or chased by their abuser.
- Dissociation – a feeling similar to that of ‘day-dreaming’ when you feel lost in your own thoughts and disconnected from what’s going on around you. The experience, however, can be more complete for survivors of child sexual abuse who may have no memory of a period of time. They may feel as if they’re outside of their body or may even adopt a different identity while experiencing dissociation. Dissociation may be triggered by something that reminded the person of the traumatic event. It’s an automatic response acting like a fuse which is there to protect you from an electric shock during a power surge. It can become problematic, however, if it starts to happen too often.
- Memory problems – some people may only remember small fragments of what happened or may not be able to recall whole periods of their childhood. They may have buried the memories deep down until a time when they may be more ready to cope with them. Sometimes memories or flashbacks can start to surface later in life – or, in some cases, may never emerge. Like dissociation, memory loss is a natural defence mechanism which developed to help us protect ourselves from recalling distressing and overwhelming experiences.
The above are all normal reactions to trauma and have been experienced by many other adult survivors. Many of these responses are the mind’s way of protecting itself from re-living the distressing experience and from feeling more pain and upset.
Some adult survivors may turn to different ways of coping to help them deal with or manage very difficult thoughts and memories. These can include drinking too much, taking drugs, gambling, spending too much money, eating disorders, self-harm, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or other behaviour which could be dangerous or risky.
What’s important is that you’re safe now and find the support you need. If you need to talk to someone about any of these issues – you can find help in our services directory.