1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. The trauma of child sexual abuse can have serious, lifelong effects on survivors’ mental and physical health.
The lasting mental health effects of child sexual abuse may actually shorten the lifespan of survivors. Studies examining the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as child sexual abuse, have shown a direct link between trauma and serious, long-term health issues. Adult trauma survivors are much more likely to develop mental and physical health complications. Mental health issues may include depression and anxiety. Physical health ramifications may include substance abuse, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.
Understanding the Effects of Child Sexual Abuse
Understanding that mental health affects our physical health is crucial. For example, some survivors of child sexual have chronic nightmares, vividly re-experiencing their abuse. As the body tries to protect itself from nightly trauma, the survivor may develop insomnia, difficulty falling or staying asleep. Lack of sleep puts additional stress on the brain and deprives the body of the necessary rest for proper function. Some survivors begin self-medicating through drugs or alcohol. Sustained use can irreversibly affect the body’s organs – specifically, the heart, liver, and stomach.
When children experience trauma like sexual abuse, the structure of their brain can be altered. MRI images of children with healthy development depict bright, colorful waves of activity across almost all areas of the brain. Children who have experienced significant levels of trauma show dimmer images of brain activity, with black swatches of inactivity. If left untreated, the structural changes can follow a child into adulthood.
Protecting Children from Lifelong Effects of Abuse
Darkness to Light strives to not only eliminate child sexual abuse but to ensure children have the healthy development needed for long, happy lives. Sometimes trauma can’t be avoided. We can’t protect children from losing a loved one or experiencing a natural disaster. But, we can protect them from the trauma of child sexual abuse. As adults, we must do our part to abuse from happening in our homes, schools, and communities.
Prevention education is the key to protecting and nurturing children and their potential. Recognizing the signs and reacting responsibly to abuse can help save a child from the lifelong mental effects of sexual abuse. Once the investigation process begins, victims of child sexual abuse can be connected with life-saving services. Most child advocacy centers (CACs) provide a form of therapy that helps the child process the trauma over several weeks or months, equipping them with coping techniques and cognitive tools for recovery. Click here to find resources and support near you.
Trauma therapy provided by CACs can have an incredible impact, transforming once withdrawn, disconnected children into confident, happy kids who are making better grades, sleeping through the night, and eating healthier. This is the result we want to see for all children who experience abuse. Every child deserves a safe, healthy, worry-free childhood. All adults are responsible for making sure that happens by preventing and responding responsibly to child sexual abuse.
Want to learn how you can help keep kids safe? Our trauma-informed, researched-based, flagship program Stewards of Children® equips you with the knowledge and confidence needed to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse and react responsibly.
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