By Mary Varughese
The Department of Health (2004) in the UK defines Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) as…
“Forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including penetrative (e.g., rape or buggery) and non-penetrative acts. They may include non-contact activities such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic material or watching sexual activities or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.”
A child here is anyone under the age of 18 years. Peers, parents, family friends, strangers, siblings, or relatives could commit abuse.
There are several factors that compound the long-term effects that abuse has on a child (Sanderson, 2006).
These factors are:
- Age of the child at onset of CSA
- Duration and frequency of the CSA
- Type of sexual acts
- Use of force or violence
- Relationship of the child to the abuser
- Age and gender of the abuser
- Effects of disclosure
Degree of Trauma
It has been found that trauma is greater when:
- the child is young
- the relationship with the abuser is closer
- violence has been used during abuse
- penetration has occurred
- the frequency of abuse is prolonged
Trauma occurs also at the point of disclosure if the child is not believed or is blamed for the abuse.
Short-term and Long-term Effects
CSA causes both short-term and long-term effects.
Short-term effects occur almost unconsciously, because the child is dealing with the abuse and is finding ways to cope with it. He is initially shocked, surprised, confused, terrified, learning ways to minimize the anxiety it is causing if the abuser is a close relative, or if telling an adult has failed to bring an end to the abuse. The child is confused about whether what is happening is okay or not. If the child is sure that it is not, he will become withdrawn, moody, anxious; and there is a sudden change in behavior. Some children cope by acting out, becoming aggressive, performing badly in school, or having disciplinary issues.
Long-term effects occur because the child is very impressionableat the time of abuse. The child also lacks the words and language to appropriately process what is happening. The child learns to protect him/herself from the repeated abuse by shutting out when the abuse is happening, because it is too painful. This leads to a condition called dissociation. The child learns mechanisms to deal with the abuse that are helpful at the time of the abuse. These mechanisms are learnt quickly and become an integral part of the personality of the child. Once this happens, they outlive the abuse and are continued on into adulthood. The growing adult loses an authentic sense of identity and incorporates the ‘other selves’ as part of one’s identity.
Changes in Functioning of the Brain
Trauma also changes the functioning of the brain. Bassel van der Kolk says that there are three ways in which this happens:
- Threat Perception – The Threat Perception system in the brain is enhanced so much so that traumatized people see a threat, where other people seem to be able to manage with the resources they have. This happens in the primitive part of the brain. It becomes a ‘fear-driven brain’. Hence, the person is always on edge and rarely relaxes.
- Filtering System – The Filtering system that helps distinguish what is relevant right now and what can be dismissed gets messed up, and traumatized people begin paying attention to what others would normally ignore. This makes it hard for the traumatized person to focus on what is happening in the moment. Hence, meaningful engagement in the present is affected.
- Self-Sensing System – The Self-Sensing system that is focused on experiencing oneself gets blunt. This could be a defensive response, because when a person is in a situation of terror, he/she feels it in his/her body. These could be emotions and feelings that are beyond their capacity to manage. Some choose to handle this through drugs while others shut out their response to their self. But, when this happens, they also stifle responses of pleasure, excitement, and connection with others. Hence, the person never seems to enjoy being in the company of others or even enjoy small pleasures of life.
On the whole, CSA has long-term effects in the intrapersonal (emotional), interpersonal, behavioral, cognitive (perceptual), physical, and sexual areas of a person. We will deal with each of these issues in subsequent updates.
Effect on Relationship with God
Many of the survivors face the hard question, “Where was God when this happened or all these things were happening?” The way in which people are able to answer this question or not determines whether they move closer to God or move away from Him. Some find it hard to be in the same room where God is mentioned. Others continue on in a relationship with Him, but there is either an intellectual or emotional distance maintained.
Bridging the Spiritual Distance
Along with addressing the psychological and traumatic effects of CSA, our program also aims at bridging this spiritual distance and seeing God for who He is, helping women see themselves as being in His image, and restoring this distorted image.
- Sanderson, Christiane. Counselling Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. 3rd Ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London and Philadelphia, 2006.