, Gloucester, MA

May 17, 2013

Childhood sexual abuse's long-term impact

Personal Matters
Susan Britt

---- — For most of her life, Ellen pushed the memory away, deep into a dark pocket of her soul. In counseling, she eventually felt safe enough to remember.

She and her friend, both 6 years old, were watching cartoons in her friend’s living room. Her friend fell asleep on the floor and Ellen continued to watch, drowsily, from the sofa. Her friend’s big brother, who was baby-sitting, came into the room. He placed his finger conspiratorially to his lips and lifted Ellen into his arms. He carried her to the basement and sexually abused her. Before he took her upstairs again, he told her that she was bad for doing this, and that if she told her parents, he would hurt her.

Large numbers of children are sexually abused every year. Like Ellen, they are often young, trusting and unable to fight back because the abuser is, in some sense, in charge.

Sexual abuse isn’t always intercourse. It can be touching, fondling, exhibitionism or words and looks — anything that has a sexual intent and is directed toward a child. Sexual abuse can be perpetrated by adults, teenagers or older children. Although abused children do not always understand exactly what is happening, they understand instinctively that it is something “bad” and their self-esteem suffers.

Added to the sexual abuse is the psychological abuse of “don’t tell or else…” Children often do not tell because their perspective is that every bigger person has the power of life and death over them. So, they are in a painful psychological trap: they are hurting, but they can’t scream. The combined effect of this physical and psychological trauma is overwhelming so they push it away, and try to forget.

But, the subconscious doesn’t forget. Abused children may experience anxiety, poor concentration, change in appetite and other physical symptoms. They may lose all trust in others and rebel against authority and become runaways. Or they become too trusting because their need to feel safe is so intense. In some cases, as with Ellen, this tendency to over-trust eventually manifests itself as promiscuous behavior.

Childhood sexual abuse affects the adult the child becomes. Some become anorexic, keeping a childlike body to deny their sexuality. Others are obsessive rescuers and caretakers. Few have positive self-esteem or healthy sexual relationships. And, very few ultimately recognize the source of their adult unhappiness.

Unfortunately, it will take a very long time for the three young victims of the horrific abuse in Cleveland, Ohio, to recover, not only because of their imprisonment and abuse, but because they missed experiencing their formative years in a healthy, family environment. They will require much loving care from their families and counseling to process what has happened to them and to ameliorate the symptoms of post traumatic stress.

Based in Rockport, life coach and psychotherapist, Susan Britt, M.Ed., teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at or 978-546-9431.