Victims of childhood sexual abuse are faced with many emotional and psychological challenges as they age. Research tells us that adult survivors’ worldviews, and how they view themselves, are shaped by four trauma-causing factors (traumatic sexualization, betrayal, powerlessness, and stigmatization).
Research also tells us that negative behaviors and self-care tend to underscore the lives of adult survivors. Even as adults, victims of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to view relationships and life’s more difficult moments as insurmountable obstacles. Their early trauma making them more vulnerable to cycles of self-defeating talk and actions.
If you were the victim of childhood sexual abuse, it can be helpful to understand these broader areas of concern.
But clinical terms like “Trauma Causing Factors,” can be difficult to connect with on an emotional level. Even if you do understand how powerlessness or stigmatization applies to your own coping methods and behavior, how can you take that information and change for the better?
Understanding certain specifics of survivor psychology, however, can give you a clearer window into your own unique experiences and memories.
The knowledge can better prepare you to confront and overcome the very personal aspects of your own behavior and coping that, only you can best recognize, might be holding you back.
Doctors John Briere (Ph.D.) and Catherine Scott (MD) in their 2006 book Principles of Trauma Therapy talk about 6 specific psychological behaviors that often haunt adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse throughout their lives.
Looking at each in turn can give you an up-close perspective and better understanding of hurdles you may struggle with every day.
1. Negative Messages about Personal and Interpersonal Worth
Children, like adults, internalize emotional experiences from their lives. Their identities are formed by absorbing and thinking about how the attitudes, behaviors, and expectations of those around them inform their world. Abused children, however, find themselves in extremely difficult environments and surrounded by harmful role-models and caretakers. They are victims of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse.
Because of this, their perceptions of their own worth, and the goodness of others in their lives is skewed in a negative way.
As they grow older, childhood victims of abuse are prone to carry these negative assessments of themselves and others into adulthood.
They may become aggressive, defensive, or overly shy when presented with social opportunities. As a result, many adult survivors of sexual abuse are unable to create close, intimate relationships with other people.
2. Overwhelming Emotional Reactions
Adult survivors may also experience intense emotional responses to situations and events that trigger their traumatic memories of abuse. These triggers take many forms—specific words, for instance, or finding themselves in situations that remind them of their past.
These triggers take root during their childhood years, and can make day-to-day adult living a whirlwind of intense emotion.
There is often no way to avoid triggers during daily life as an adult. Because of this, adult survivors may find the simplest chores and tasks too emotionally painful to bear, to say nothing of life’s many rare opportunities. Adult survivors may find it draining, challenging, and often times impossible to act in routine ways if their triggers from childhood abuse affect them intensely and routinely.
3. Remembering Abuse through Bodily Sensations
Many adult survivors report intense and unwanted physiological sensations that appear during situations that evoke their past abuse. During childhood, children lack the verbal and mental skills needed to describe their experiences. Because they cannot mentally label and think about how they feel, their feeling of powerlessness, vulnerability, shame, and guilt manifest in the form of physical sensations.
Called “implicit” memories, or “body memories,” when an adult suddenly remembers a traumatic event from his or her childhood, the way their body recorded their experience as a child resurfaces. Adult survivors may find themselves reliving, through bodily sensations, the intense emotional experiences they felt as a child.
However their young body “recorded” the emotional experience—a chill, an arousal, a shaking—arrives full-force with the memory itself. From start to finish, these “flashbacks” are often horrific, visceral experiences that many adult survivors endure.
4. Personal Narratives of Abuse
The story of abuse is one that is unique to every adult survivor. Much of their lives unfold as a continuation of their history of abuse, which are very hard-won, personal narratives. Thinking in stories is a very human condition, and maintaining and referring back to a personal history of abuse presents adult survivors with many complex questions.
For example, an adult survivor can “replay” scenarios from their childhood to assist them throughout recovery. Keeping their stories in mind helps guide them toward asking important, difficult, and fundamental questions about who they were, are, and wish to be. Unfortunately, this sense of story can also allow for “misreadings” of their experiences, potentially cementing ideas of blame, shame, and helplessness deeper inside their minds.
The stories of our lives are powerful forces. With careful monitoring and guidance, adult survivors can learn to read their histories with more healthy, able eyes and avoid telling themselves tales of tragedy.
5. Acting on Unconsciously Buried Abuse
We’ve learned that childhood abuse is often “memorized” by bodily sensations, but many memories of abuse can go unnoticed, still having a strong influence over adult lives.
Children who are abused lack the mental tools necessary to label properly and express their experience of abuse.
As often happens, during their mind’s frantic search to make sense of their situation, they pull the plug, essentially “disconnecting” from the memory altogether, often acting as if the experience never happened.
While this is a natural reaction for children developmentally unable to do much different, these childhood experiences can remain “buried” inside an adult survivor’s mind and guide their behaviors. Without a proper recovery treatment, these hidden experiences, though they never surface, come to dictate how adult survivors interact with others, perceive their worth, or act or don’t act during sexual encounters. Specific psychological defenses and behaviors, while perhaps all that is available to childhood victims, can wreak new havoc on the lives of adult survivors. The results are often long-lasting and negative.
6. Engaging in Avoidant Coping Styles
Adults who have survived sexual abuse as children may also fall into patterns of avoidant behavior. They may distance themselves from other people, never risk getting close to others, even purposefully hurt relationships they already have.
This brand of behavior is a hallmark of early abuse. As children forced into distressing sexual situations, they were denied many key developmental skills and experiences. Their childhood was developmentally off kilter, and to lessen whatever pains they feel or remember in the present, adult survivors often seek to avoid the attention and closeness of others.
Avoidance behaviors take many forms. Some adult survivors isolate themselves from any social contact. Others turn to alcohol and drugs, engage in self-harm, or completely dissociate from their need to express pain.
Still others combine many different kinds of avoidance to “fit” whatever perceptions their abused minds feel are appropriate and necessary.
Adults consciously and unconsciously think, feel, and behave under the influence of early sexual abuse. Childhood abuse not only robs children of loving, caring years, but continues stealing valuable experiences and healthy coping mechanisms from adult survivors. If this list proves anything, it is that childhood, and consequently adulthood, is made difficult and complex in the face and memory of sexual abuse.
The more you, an adult survivor, can learn to identify specific psychological roadblocks preventing recovery, the more chances you have to reverse the negative behaviors currently affecting your life.