The Lasting Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Health Writer

Along with the rest of the country, I watched the child sexual abuse scandal out of Penn State University in 2011 with horror. It is beyond imagination to believe that someone could prey on young children, to seek out at-risk and vulnerable children and then abuse them. It goes beyond our moral compass to believe that people, those who had the power to stop this, turned their back for the sake of football.

There is no doubt that every day, in homes and institutions around the country, people turn a blind eye to abuse, allowing children to be abused - emotionally, physically and sexually. For the majority of us, this is unthinkable and we view looking the other way as just as wrong as committing the act itself.

As the students of Penn State rioted to protest the firing of their beloved football coach, many people were stunned and horrified. A public  outcry, "What about the children?" became loud enough to put an end to the rioting and make room for a vigil held to show support of the young boys at the center of this investigation. But what happens to children of sexual abuse?

Children's Reactions

Most children who are the victims of sexual abuse know it is wrong. They may feel afraid, angry and disgust. Often, an adult they trusted has hurt them. They are confused and may blame themselves and be afraid to speak out. They may worry that they did something "wrong" to deserve the abuse. When the abuser is of the same sex, they may wonder if they are gay.

While children react differently to sexual abuse, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs, some reactions include:

  • Nightmares
  • Acting out the abuse
  • Lose skills they once learned or revert to acting younger (bed-wetting, thumb sucking)
  • Acting seductively because they think that they must give up something sexually in order to get attention
  • Acting out, hurting or bullying others
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Running away
  • Suicidal thoughts


In a study completed at the University of Granada, children who blame themselves or their families for the sexual abuse were more likely to cope with the situation through avoidance. This means they refused to think about the situation, slept as much as possible or, when older, turned to drugs and alcohol to block out thoughts of the abuse. According to the researchers, children who used avoidance strategies were those that were most likely to develop post traumatic stress disorder later in life.

Long Term Effects of Sexual Abuse

The affects of sexual abuse in childhood often lasts well into adulthood. Our expert Merely Me states, "I am forty-four years old and my abuse took place when I was five years old. lthough it has been more than several decades since this abuse took place, I still re-live the fear and terror of that time.

I can remember details surrounding the abuse and my abuser with sparkling clarity." The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress indicates that over one half of all children who are sexually abused show at least some signs of post traumatic stress disorder. One third of sexually abused children show signs of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem]. Approximately one fourth develop disruptive behavior disorders. Many have dysfunctional relationships as adults and/or turn to substance abuse to hide their pain.

What to Do if You Suspect Sexual Abuse

When faced with the possibility of childhood sexual abuse, we may react with anger and rage at the abuser. However, a young child can easily mistake this anger as directed toward him or her. It is important to remain calm, let the child know you believe him and reassure him that this is not his fault. Be understanding that this step, telling you, took great courage on the part of the child. Let him know that you will keep him safe.

The next step is to take the child to a medical professional. This is often very confusing and upsetting for the child, after all, you normally go to the doctor when "something is wrong with you." Merely Me explains her experience, "I remember feeling confused and frightened during the examination.

An overwhelming sense of shame comes over me as the doctor speaks privately to my mother. I don't understand why at the time but I feel dirty and bad as though I have done something terribly wrong." Be sympathetic and understanding.

You will also need to contact the legal authorities. There are a number of advocacy centers around the country that can help with this step. They interview the child and their family in a safe, warm, caring environment and help taking the steps to contact the police or other legal authorities. You can find a listing of advocacy centers at: The National Children's Alliance.

Speak out. "The most effective way to prevent subsequent abusing is to decrease or eliminate opportunity; offenders should not have uncontrolled access to vulnerable children or previous victims." [U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs]


"Child Sexual Abuse," 2007, Jan 1, Staff Writer, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

"Sexual Abuse of Children," 2006, Renee Z. Dominguez, Ph.D., Connie F. Nelke, Ph.D., Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress

"Victims of Child Abuse Who Blame Themselves and Their Families for Their Situation Present Higher Rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," 2010, Oct 28, University of Granada, Medical News Today