Sexual, Physical, and Emotional Abuse
Few things leave a mark on someone's life more than sexual abuse or other severe emotional or physical abuse. We tend to fall apart, numb out, withdraw, or attack when we experience abuse. We learn a very defensive approach to the world that can be difficult to alter later. We become afraid of others, ourselves, and/or our environment.
Undoing these patterns takes awareness and work. But it can be done. Therapy and support groups can provide a "safe place" to talk about ones experiences and to learn that one was not at fault for the abuse. Self esteem can be developed and self-confidence increased. Anxiety and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress can be lessened. Life can become much more enjoyable and meaningful.
Current trends in abuse treatment
Treatment for abuse has come a long way in the last ten years. In some ways it is more gentle than it used to be, with a greater understanding of attachment issues and the psychobiology of treating traumatic stress. Helping the person to feel safe in their body and to develop emotion management skills prevents the therapy from being a traumatic experience itself. Note the book listed to the left about safe ways to manage trauma recovery.
Sexual abuse can be overt and blatant (molestation) or covert and subtle (being dressed as a child in provocative clothing). It "explodes" the feelings of a child. The following information is provided to give some idea about the nature of sexual abuse.
What are the general signs of sexual abuse?
- Feelings of loss and grief
- A lack of energy
- Problems with memory
- Poor self esteem
- Excessive worry about ones body and appearance
- A feeling of being powerful in a malignant way
- Wanting to die
- Fear of authority
- Impaired spirituality
- Fear of being touched
- Fearfulness of perpetrator
- Need to be in control
- Regressive behavior
- Fear of intimacy
- Dissociative symptoms
- Feelings of detachment
- Excessive time spent in fantasy
- In severe situations, multiple personality, post traumatic stress, etc.
- Keeping unnecessary secrets
- SHAME (the feeling of not "measuring up")
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Sexual preoccupation in thought and conversation
- The need to reenact event--repetition compulsion
- Sexually precocious behavior
How do these symptoms look during childhood and adolescence?
- Failure to thrive
- Whining, crying
- Speech problems
During early childhood
- Scratching, picking
- Self-injurious behavior
- Conduct disturbances
- Sleep difficulties
- Compulsive or inappropriate sexual behavior/seductiveness
- Excessive sexual knowledge
During middle childhood
- Sexual symptoms as above
- Depression, suicidality
- Nightmares, insomnia, night terrors
- Pseudo-mature behavior
- Fears and phobias
- School and social functioning impaired
- Startle responses (being "jumpy" and easily surprised)
During early adolescence
- Acute anxiety
- Sexual promiscuity
- Social withdrawal/good girl behavior
What factors influence severity of disturbance?
- Duration and frequency of the abuse
- The age of victim at time of abuse
- The type of sexual activity involved
- How overt the abuse was, versus how covert it was (the dynamics can be different)
- Penetration of body parts
- Use of force/violence
- Age, gender, and relationship of perpetrator
- Response of responsible others--parents, teachers, law enforcement officers
What type of people tend to abuse?
- Those who were made into adults during childhood
- Those who feel like they can't allow themselves to be nurtured
- Emotionally undeveloped and starved adults
- Morally rigid individuals
- Those who feel the need to lead to control their feelings
- Those with poor interpersonal skills
- Both men and women
- Those who were abused
- Those who struggle with shame/anger/rage related to sexual issues
Who do the victims tend to be?
- The more vulnerable child (the child who is more emotionally and/or circumstantially dependent)
- The more accessible child
- Often, family members
Preventative measures for anyone who works with children or families
Other Forms of Abuse
Other forms of abuse can have similar symptoms, and they will tend to be more like the original form of abuse or its opposite. Violence leads to violence or extreme passivity, etc.
Adult Children of Alcoholics
Children who grew up in homes where there was alcoholism were typically exposed to one form of abuse or another. Even the "quiet" alcoholic--the one who never yelled or threw a lamp--often deprives a child of any interaction and leaves a serious wound.