Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse

As young children, our world revolves around our parents, primary caregivers, family and trusted authority figures. They are our source of safety, security, love and understanding.

However, estimates show that 28-30% of women and 12-18% of men have experienced childhood sex abuse.

Because of the shame and guilt victims feel, the impact of repressed abuse is often mistaken for irresponsibility or weakness. The long-term effects of child sexual abuse can follow survivors throughout life, disguised as a difficulty adjusting to or coping with the responsibilities of normal adulthood.

Conflicting Relationships and Chaotic Lifestyles

Childhood sexual abuse violates the trust a child is developing in relationships and with the world, at it’s very core. Particularly when the damaged relationship is one that betrayed those feelings of safety and security, a negative set of beliefs begins to develop.

Victims of childhood sexual abuse often struggle to establish or sustain significant attachments throughout life. As the long-term effects of child sexual abuse show, survivors struggle with feelings of both inadequacy and mistrust. Also, the abuse can continue to poison a survivor’s life long after the physical acts have ended.

Many survivors’ lives are characterized by frequent crises such as:

  • Job disappointments
  • Frequent relocation
  • Failed relationships
  • Financial setbacks

The results of unresolved childhood abuse issues, survivor’s often unknowingly perpetuate internal chaos to avoid facing underlying issues related to their abuse.

At it’s worst, childhood sexual abuse victims engage in a never-ending cycle of exhausting and dispiriting obstacles and traumas. However, it is possible to live a full and constructive life, and even thrive – to enjoy a feeling of wholeness, satisfaction in your life and work as well as genuine love and trust in your relationships.

Understanding the relationship between your prior abuse and current behavior is the first step towards ‘recovery’.

Substance Abuse

Childhood sex abuse victims often spend years blaming themselves for the abuse, feeling guilty and ashamed and viewing themselves negatively. The long-term effects of child sexual abuse – low self-esteem, guilt and self-blame – are very serious, and often result in a spiral into self-abuse and addiction. Also, children who have been sexually molested are far more susceptible to addiction, as drugs or alcohol are frequently used in self-medication to numb the pain push away the painful memories of the sexual abuse.

Victims of childhood sex abuse are 3x more likely to abuse marijuana, 6x more likely to abuse cocaine, and 10x more likely to use other major drugs, such as heroin.

This can lead to further self-destructive behavior, unsafe sexual practices, overdoses, and suicide.

Broken Relationships

Unfortunately, victims of childhood sex abuse often find themselves in abusive or dysfunctional adult relationships. Oftentimes, difficulty trusting others or loving oneself aggravates poor self-esteem. Instances of abusive partners or relationships that are less than ideal are more common, as victims struggle with a fear of intimacy, difficulty establishing interpersonal boundaries, passive-aggressive behaviors, and depression.

Studies have shown that as the severity of childhood sex abuse increases, ability to adjust to intimate relationships decreases.

Eating Disorders

The principle feature of eating disorders is a preoccupation with control overeating, body weight and food. Anorexia and bulimia nervosa are the most serious of the eating disorders.

Studies have found that 30% of those adults with an eating disorder were once victims of childhood sex abuse. The body shame and need to feel control often triggers self-destructive, harmful habits such as starvation or purging.

Bulimia in particular is one way that teenagers and adults attempt to control the thoughts and emotions that accompany such horrific acts of childhood sex abuse, and includes repeated bouts of uncontrolled overeating (bingeing), intense fear of gaining weight, engaging in excessive exercise to prevent weight gain, self-induced vomiting and the use of laxatives and fluid tablets.

Panic Attacks

Feelings of apprehension combined with physical symptoms of tension are a response to perceived present danger. A natural response that helps our bodies ready for times of fear or stress, panic should not occur without experiencing a sense of danger.

However, victims of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to experience frequent or generalized feelings of distress. These bouts of anxiety can range from mild discomfort to intense fear, and those suffering from a panic attack can feel trembling, sweating, trouble breathing, nausea or detachment.