Early Childhood Sexual Trauma

What Constitutes Sexual Abuse of a Child?

Sexual abuse includes any time a child is used in any way for the sexual stimulation of an adult or another child. This may involve touching, voyeurism, exhibitionism, penetration, or showing a child pornography. Regardless of the form it takes, sexual abuse is a traumatic experience, particularly so for a child whose underlying sense of self and safety is in the developmental stages. A child never gives true consent, even if the abuse is masked in “play” or seen by the child as an enjoyable activity. Exploitation of a child for sexual arousal is always abuse. There is no such thing as “not so bad” when speaking of experiences of early childhood sexual trauma and their impacts on victims throughout their lives.

Dr. David Buch, Chief Medical Officer of Carrier Clinic® addresses the topic:

We need to eliminate the stigma associated with talking about sexual abuse in order for victims to come forward for the support and therapies that can so greatly improve their lives.

Impact of Sexual Trauma on Children

From infancy throughout childhood, important attachments to caregivers enable children to develop beliefs about themselves as valuable, cared-for individuals, and about the world as a basically safe place. Early childhood trauma of any kind – accidents, natural disasters, witnessing violence, being neglected, sexual abuse, etc., interferes with those normal and important attachment formations and impedes lessons of self-worth and safety. Compounded by a child’s inability to understand everything that happens to him/her, to articulate emotions and to provide for his/her own protection, this leads to overwhelming stress and fear at exactly the time when a person normally learns trust and security.

A recent longitudinal study (meaning the study followed its participants over a long period from childhood to early adulthood), confirmed what professionals who deal with victims of childhood sexual abuse have often observed from their experience and shorter-term studies. That is, childhood sexual abuse has profound psychological, behavioral and physiological effects on its victims. The issues more prevalent in these children include poor academic performance, high rates of truancy, depression, dissociation, sexual acting-out, low self-esteem, immaturity, aggressiveness, bullying, weak family attachments, obesity, hormonal imbalances and lower IQ scores. Child sexual abuse can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Because the developing brain is extremely vulnerable, childhood trauma, in general, is associated with a smaller brain cortex, the area of the brain that affects memory, attention, language and other complex functions. Thus, young victims may present with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms or may seem to “space out”, especially in response to stress (this is called dissociation).

All of these effects impact a child’s interpersonal relationships, academic success, and ability to behave within acceptable parameters. Often, social services, academic interventions, and the juvenile justice system become regular participants in these children’s lives. Unfortunately, the underlying cause, sexual trauma, is not always discovered. As a result, maladaptive behaviors are treated or punished without addressing the problem at the root of these behaviors.

More Help

Call the National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) if you suspect child abuse or don’t know where to turn for help.

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