Photo: Puwadon Sang-ngern/pexels.com
Imagine a five-year-old enjoying their growing years (oblivious of the complexities of the world and the intentions of those around), trying to absorb as much as possible, learning as much as offered, going with the flow of life, full of curiosity and then suddenly there is a jolt/halt.
The child does not understand, its young mind cannot comprehend or make sense of what has happened. But now, that carefree child lives in an unknown fear and a sense of uneasiness. Yes, the child has been abused sexually. Within a fraction of time, something shifts within that child’s mind and body, and a part of them gets trapped in that moment of abuse.
Child sexual abuse has serious implications on the young minds. The first thing that goes out of the window is a sense of safety, especially when the abuser is a known person (which in most cases it is).
Abuse of any kind is an event that leaves behind a scar, a trauma and child sexual abuse can have lasting effects, and in many cases, throughout life. Based on various surveys across the world, it has been observed that 28 to 33% of women and 12 to 18% of men become victims of childhood or adolescent sexual abuse.
So, even as you are reading this, a little child is most likely getting abused somewhere. We, often, try to slip such things under the carpet but the sooner we accept and face this reality, the sooner we will be able to take steps towards changing it. Child sexual abuse has serious implications on the young minds. The first thing that goes out of the window is a sense of safety, especially when the abuser is a known person (which in most cases it is). So, what happens when a child is sexually abused? I will come to how the trauma manifests itself in adult life, later in the article.
When a child is sexually assualted, they lose their idea of trust. As children, we have a natural tendency of being trusting towards everyone. We believe what our elders tell us, we rely on them for our safety, we want to follow their footsteps, we have faith that whatever they do is right. There is an unsaid contract of trust and when that contract is breached, the young mind is scarred.
In many cases, the child doesn’t know on a conscious level that they have been abused and that it is a wrong act. But, our body, our unconscious mind has innate wisdom and it gives a signal that this is not right. The thought, which is likely to come is that the one who is supposed to ensure our safety broke that net and violated our personal space. Now, the child feels that they cannot trust anyone and hence, they keep those feelings bottled up inside them.
In many cases, the child doesn’t know on a conscious level that they have been abused and that it is a wrong act. But, our body, our unconscious mind has innate wisdom and it gives a signal that this is not right.
Shame and stigma also prevent many survivors from disclosing abuse. In my practice, I have seen clients who chose to stay silent about it well into their 40s as well, or some didn’t even have an immediate recalling memory of the abuse. When in therapy, they regressed to those moments which means that many a time we disassociate from the moment of abuse to save ourselves from the emotional discomfort (Please note that the hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for learning and memory starts developing only after the age of 4-5 and those who suffered abuse before that will not have any episodic memory but the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, will have those feelings and sensations).
Once I was working with a regular client and some of their concerns included self-worth, fear of confrontation, and freezing at the slightest hint of danger or discomfort. During the session, it came out that this person was sexually abused at the age of six and since the abuser was a relative, they simply froze and that feeling has been with them well into their late 30s. Another client had an irrational fear of going to the mountains especially for a holiday. It turned out it was during a summer holiday in the hills that they were sexually assaulted.
Heal the trauma
The good news is that healing is possible and is for everyone, beyond age, gender, caste, class, etc. Trauma is actually how we feel while in a tough situation and not the event itself. Though we cannot change the event, we can work on the emotions and hence, heal the trauma. Once you commit to doing the work required, you can harness the limitless power your brain possesses. The first step towards healing is acknowledging the abuse and then honouring what you did or didn’t do in that moment to survive. Writing it out really helps as it allows you to step out of that moment and realise that it is in the past now. Apart from that, creating a physical safe space, deep breathing, dropping unimportant tasks, connecting with other survivors, validating your emotions are few more ways, which will be helpful in healing. Working with a professional who can be your guide and confidante during your journey of healing will be extremely helpful.
Fallouts of not addressing sexual abuse, trauma
The young mind is unaware how to process such an incident and those emotions start manifesting later in life on emotional, mental, and physical levels. Listed below are few of the many ways in which unprocessed child sexual abuse show up in adult life.
You find it difficult to get physically intimate with your partner. There is a feeling of being unsafe in being vulnerable.
You can’t trust people and take everything with a pinch of salt. Also, you are always scanning your environment for possible threats.
Low body image
As a young mind, you internalised that it is because of your body you got abused. You stop paying attention to it and taking care of it, resulting in low body image.
Disassociation from the body
You stop connecting with your body. You feel ‘cut-off’ from the body or have the experience of looking at or sensing one's body from the outside, rather than the experience of being physically ‘inside’ oneself.
On a level of social conditioning, blaming oneself for the abuse is a common coping mechanism. Instead of feeling the heavy pain of betrayal, we blame ourselves. It also transforms into blaming oneself for anything that goes wrong in life.
Since we have not processed the emotions from the abuse, they often take the shape of anger resulting in impulsive behaviour.
Building a wall
To protect ourselves from further abuse, we create a strong wall around us. This wall not only keeps the abusers away but also our loved ones.