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Sexual Abuse in Children
By Anuradha Satyanarayana

Childhood is a building block on which the future is laid. Childhood experiences influence the ways in which we feel, think, act and respond throughout our lives. The events, circumstances and relationships of our early past have a profound and implacable impact on our adult lives. For some children childhood is not the golden period that is idolized and glorified, rather it is a period of intense pain and hurt and betrayal. This hurt, pain and betrayal is often caused by sexual abuse. 

What is Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse can take place within the family by a parent, step-parent, sibling or any other relative, or outside the home by a friend, teacher, caretaker or favorite uncle! Child abuse can be defined as a physical violation of a child's body through any sort of sexual contact or a psychological violation of the child through verbal or nonverbal behavior. It is neglectful, disrespectful and hurtful because it violates a child's basic rights to be protected, nurtured and guided through childhood. It can range from covert episodes like using profane language to overt actions like rape. Lyod de Mause wrote, "The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken," and true enough the Indian society is still awakening to the fact that child sexual abuse exists and has horrifying after effects. 

No child is psychologically prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. Child sexual abuse leaves deep physical and psychological scars, which often have indelible and irrevocable ramifications. The consequences of abuse are traumatic and distort the development process. Research evidence suggests that the initial effect is that of fear often accompanied by depression, restlessness, bedwetting, refusal to go to school, feelings of guilt, phobias and nightmares.  

Long-term Effects

The long-term effects of child sexual abuse are intense shame and low self-esteem. Most victims feel valued only as sexual objects and relate to the world through sexual activity. They feel worthless, insignificant and almost invisible. Guilt and shame go hand in hand. Many children continue to believe that they played some part in the interaction. They may blame themselves for the physical contact, and for not having defended themselves. Most children feel isolated from others, especially if a family member is involved, because they feel there is no one they can safely confide in. Sexual abuse involves coercion, confusion, manipulation and betrayal, thus making it emotionally devastating.

 Most adult survivors go on to become loners, avoiding intimate relationships. They become fearful of trusting people as those they trusted have violated them. This self-imposed isolation keeps them from further hurt, but it also deprives them from getting their needs met. Most victims find it difficult to trust people and form meaningful relationships. Most victims report reactions of fear, hostility and an acute sense of betrayal. It is this sense of betrayal that often proves to be an obstacle while making new relationships. 

Blurred role boundaries between adults

For many children the abusive experience demonstrates blurred role boundaries between adults and children, parents and children, and often men and women. Children may be frightened to trust, fear intimacy, show extremes in dependency needs, and may often vacillate from being totally dependent to totally independent. Typically they may sexualize their relationships in an attempt to gain affection. In adolescence this can lead to self-destructive patters of promiscuity with a succession of abusive relationships, often with far reaching and emotionally crippling consequences. Interpersonal difficulties are characteristic of adult life.

Depression and a feeling of "damaged goods"

Sexually abused children often become depressed because they have no way of dealing with their painful feelings. A child endures extreme losses, like the loss of safety, loss of self-esteem, and the loss of trust. These losses tend to reinforce the depression. Most adult survivors carry these childhood losses with them and struggle with repeated bouts of depression. The negative connotations that are communicated to the child about the experiences become incorporated in the child's self image. There may be a failure to even establish a sense of self and they feel like "damaged goods." 

The child's sense of responsibility is often distorted. Sometimes an over developed sense of responsibility is exhibited wherein they feel responsible for everything and are frequently overwhelmed by guilt. Some other children totally internalize the victim's role and refuse to accept responsibility for anything. 

Feeling of Guilt and Abandonment

The neglect that is part of growing up in a sexually abusive family causes the child to feel abandoned. They are in constant fear of their well being and it isn't just the abuse itself. It is the threats, the guilt, and the constant fear of discovery that is as harmful. All these feeling coupled with the painful realization that the people who are supposed to love them are the ones who are hurting and betraying them is the worst of all. 

Instead of developing the feelings about oneself and others that a child would learn in a nurturing family (I am important), they creatively alter and develop skills to survive, which may include denial (I'll pretend it did not happen). Altered coping skills interrupt the learning stage and are ineffective in adulthood. For example, instead of learning to trust, they learn not to trust causing a host of interpersonal and personal problems. 

Many an adult survivor may turn to a preoccupation with food, sex, or gambling, as a way of coping. They use it as a means of feeling whole and integrated. Such preoccupations also give them a sense of illusive escape from their traumatic world.  

Importance of Family Support

If the abuse is short lived and terminated with effective action, the negative consequences are minimized. However, one of the most important factors is to believe in the child. Family support, love and understanding are crucial at this stage and may largely influence the recovery of the individual. Thus, abuse inflicts severe physical, psychological and spiritual damage, the echoes of which haunt the child long after he has grown up. It is important that the survivors move beyond the painful past and live an integrated, empowered, and fulfilling life that they are entitled to and capable of living. It is possible to change a hopeless life to a hope filled life.

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