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Signs of childhood sexual abuse are extremely important. For those of us who have children in our lives, it could mean the difference between catching an inappropriate abusive encounter or relationship early and letting a problem continue on for days, weeks, months or sometimes even years. Signs of sexual abuse in children, among many others, can include behavioral problems that are uncharacteristic to the child, fear of being left alone, cruelty to animals, and a knowledge of sexuality that is not typically possessed by young children. Countless articles and resources exist to help spot signs of sexual abuse in children. ChildWelfare.gov has a pretty great article if you need to read up or have some worry about a child in your life, and there are many, many others. Most people are familiar with some signs, and these symptoms are usually discussed fairly publicly.

What isn’t discussed as much are the effects that adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have to deal with. As an adult survivor, I’ve learned so much about these effects, as many of them were present in my own life without me even realizing it. If you’re an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it may be worth your time to read up on some of these. If you were abused, even if you went through therapy, you may still have to deal with some of these issues. It’s easier to fix problems if you can identify them.

This is a list of some of the more common effects of childhood sexual abuse in adult survivors. As is true with most things, these may not all apply to you or your situation. There also may be issues with which you struggle that may not appear on this list. If you feel like you are experiencing inexplicable emotions or issues, it is best to seek professional help. The point of this blog isn’t to diagnose or treat, but rather to inform and encourage you to pinpoint some issues you possibly didn’t know could be connected to abuse you may have suffered.

Psychological/behavioral effects

-Dissociation, or feeling detached, confused, or feeling like your reality is not the same as everyone else’s are quite common feelings.

– You may experience trouble with trust, whether it be not finding yourself able to trust, or trusting too easily.

-You may have trouble establishing boundaries in relationships due to the fact that your boundaries were compromised at a young age.

-You may experience flashbacks to the event(s) that happened to you.

-Many people feel the need to self medicate with drugs, alcohol or other addictions as a coping mechanism.

-Low self esteem is common in adult survivors.

-You may experience isolation, or a fear of intimacy with partners.

-Many people try to cope through promiscuous sexual activity.

-Many people contemplate or attempt suicide or self injury.

-Eating disorders may be experienced.

-Sometimes adult survivors experience sexual dysfunction, or a lack of interest/pleasure in sex.

-Adult survivors are often susceptible to repeat victimizations because they are sometimes more likely to “accept” being a victim.

-Victims often anticipate an early death.

-Extreme anxiety or panic attacks are often caused by childhood sexual abuse.

-Difficulty concentrating, comprehending, or answering simple questions are symptoms.

-Many experience feelings of social withdrawal, or the inability to relate to others.

-Sometimes adult survivors have sexual fantasies about raping or abusing others.

-The opposite is also true – many experience fantasies about being raped, tortured, or abused.

-Fear of medical procedures is common.

Emotional effects

-Constant grief or mourning are common among adult survivors of sexual abuse because of the loss of innocent, childhood, normal relationships as a child, and trust.

-Guilt may be felt due to the fact that you possibly experienced physical pleasure at the time of the abuse.

-The silence that surrounds abuse can lead to feelings of shame.

-Depression is common.

-Feelings of extreme anger or inexplicable rage are very common.

Physical effects

-Gastrointestinal distress, nausea, and chronic pelvic pain can be present.

-Headaches are common among survivors.

-Asthma and/or breathing problems can occur.

-Unreleased stress can lead to back or skeletal pain.

-Sexual arousal, desire or orgasm, is sometimes reported to be connected with physical pain or discomfort.

-Victims are twice as likely to be smokers, and more likely to be physically inactive and overweight/obese.

-Severe gag reflex has been reported, even when nothing is in the mouth.

There are many more after-effects of childhood sexual abuse that adults may experience. As stated above, if you feel like you are experiencing one or more of these issues, it is best to seek professional help. Furthermore, if you are experiencing issues that aren’t on this list but you feel may have stemmed from abuse which you may have experienced, you may not be wrong. Do some research and follow up with a counselor or therapist.

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24 comments

  1. Catasaurus

    For over 25 years I always thought my issues were due to medical procedures I had when I was an infant until I was about 6 years old, at least that is what I was lead to believe. The 11 surgeries may have had an impact on my life, but I’m now realizing with the help of my therapist that the sexual actions I did as a child were taught to me, they weren’t something I just knew. I still have no memory of the abuse, although I have a strong feeling of who was the abuser. Thinking back to when he gave me coins that he collected throughout the world gives me such anxiety in my chest. My therapist recommended that I find the coins. For over 20 years they were in a child’s pencil box, but a few years ago I bagged them separately and scattered them in different boxes in my basement. I don’t know why I did this, I tore my basement apart today to only find a few coins. When I was looking for them, I felt like I would find the answer, I would remember. I could accept what happened, I could start to heal. I know that is unrealistic, I just want to feel better. I have been diagnosed with BPD Type 1 w/ rapid cycling, GAD, Major Depression. I was diagnosed with Separation Anxiety when I was 8 years old. I also tried to commit suicide when I was 8 years old as well. A week before I was having Separation issues, I was told by my parents we would be visiting relatives, the same house where my abuser lived. This time he gave me paper currency from the Sudan, Iraq, and Egypt. I remember being excited and showing my parents, but when we returned home the paper currency was gone. I remember asking my parents about it, but they made me believe I made it all up in my head. Did they know? It was my Dad’s brother. Since then I have only seen him at his wedding, not its been about 20 years.

    I’m angry, hurt, anxious, thinking about just visiting with him makes me feel frozen inside. All the signs were there, I saw a psychiatrist when I was 8 years old, what happened? I’ve requested records, but they are vague. I was at work today, sitting at my desk when my eyes teared up. I quickly walked to the restroom and in the stall tears streamed down my face. I had a straight face, but water was just leaking from my eyes. I have wanted to work with my therapist to uncover any memory. The hardest part is the days following the appointment, I feel terrible. I had to stop for a while because I couldn’t take it. If I continued I knew I would start drinking, smoking, or using again. I’ve been sober for over a year and I haven’t smoked since the July 2018, the day before my daughter was born. I don’t know what is going to happen when I remember the memory. I have my wife, my daughter, one friend who lives half way across the country, and family I don’t speak to. My brothers are perfect, and I’m the fuck up who is apparently angry about everything. I know my wife will be there for me, I can always hold my daughter close to me, and if I need to I’ll get my friend on the phone.

    1. Mariposa64

      Congratulations on being sober! Walking through pain sober is difficult but doable. I’m praying for you. Oh, and nobody’s perfect – even your brothers. You are not a fuck-up.

  2. avril

    I have no memories of what happened to me really, just a few of me knowing things a child of that age could have never known without a person teaching them (not your standard porn, and this was before the age of internet porn). So I often feel invalidated in the conversations about abuse, because I know that I have no direct memories of it, very few memories of my childhood in general, about 20 years of almost entirely nothing. My memories started coming back rather quickly in the past few years. I read the bit about shame and silence and remembered how I lived in silence about it until like November of 2018. I told my mother. She refused to believe it until I explained to her everything. Seeing this, the signs that match up with my life is so validating. What happened is horrible and has impacted my life so much (I have BPD, likely caused by abuse) and I had SO MUCH shame about it. Just…thank you for putting these symptoms up here. It means a lot. Also thank you for providing a space to talk about this. I know that remembering will be awful, but I’m experiencing all the issues anyway, I’d kind of like to have my life back. Maybe I wouldn’t – I guess that’s the thing about only having your own experiences to reference, you don’t know do you? When i read this I had this experience of great sadness and feeling down. I didn’t cry like the other user here, but …just a great weight and feeling down. Very very very…down isn’t the word. Much more than down. but…yeah…anyway

  3. Airjohana

    Reading this list just made me cry

    1. Alyssa Day Captain

      If you need help dealing with what you read you can write back in a new post, or in this comment thread or email me at [email protected].

  4. sasst92

    I’ve been married to a survivor for 14 years and she’s avoided any conversation about it since our dating years when she shared very little, but enough to suspect marriage wouldn’t be easy. We’ve managed our relationship with 3 kids well, but over the last few years, I’ve observed at least a dozen of the effects listed in the article with drastic examples towards me. I haven’t been the most sensitive or mature husband through her lashings towards me and am guessing I triggered the response, but realize how deep her history could be influencing the behavior. She avoids any discussion with me eventhough I’ve sought therapy myself, yet she refuses to see a therapist since she’s apparently terrified of bringing up old ghosts (as texted to a friend), just wanting to leave them buried. Without me knowing all the details, do you think my assumptions may be correct? She’s never been too comfortable with physical touch and sex, but allowed a simple physical relationship until disconnecting completely last year. She primarily presents the following consistently during many interactions: loss of trust towards me, directing blame/fault outward, anger for minor issues, extreme anxiety, feeling of numbness, guilt of not being “enough” for me. And what to do from here is my next step/question….no cheating or physical abuse and I’m fully committed to the marriage. Thanks for any advise.

    1. limitless

      this sounds very similar to my own experience with a girlfriend — though the sexual withdrawal you describe was presented in our relationship as a desire for violence and humiliation in bed. i wonder too what i was actually dealing with. have you found any answers?

  5. shewizzdom

    Someone I know recently told me that she has only a vague remembrance ( more of a doubt) that she was sexually abused as a kid by her uncle
    how can a person be sure in such situations ..are there any sure signs to find out the truth?

    1. avril

      I posted just a second ago about my experience with this. Myself I know that something happened to me because of knowledge I had, and things i did as a very young child. Also because I have BPD which has like, one primary cause is abuse, and I don’t remember almost all of my childhood up until like this or last year when it started coming back. I still haven’t remembered the event, but it makes sense. it’s the only thing that makes sense. Sometimes it looks like an abuse shaped hole and that’s all we see. We just see a picture where the only thing that fits this hole is a very ugly piece we don’t have and we don’t know if we want to have it or not. I personally think my mind is becoming ready, becuase I’m remembering my life now, at the age of 35, 20 years of life are coming back to me. So support your friend, partner, or whatever they are to you. She may know or not, but it’s entirely possible to never remember the incident and still know. Like in my situation – some things you don’t know, especially before the internet, without someone showing you. Even the memory of knowing those things can be incredibly traumatic and shameful, and the missing time has a massive, yet silent impact on ones life.

    2. Jacqui

      Hi there,
      My advice is to believe your friend. Support them. If they are feeling unsure, they may really not know, or they may not feel comfortable saying it yet. There’s no way for her to force her to remember. Just support her in her journey, be a listening ear. And just believe.

  6. Bela

    Hi. This is a great article. Im 56 years old. When I was 7, I was molested by one of my mother’s friends, at age 10 my brother had a friend who tried to rape me. When I was 12 a family member also molested me. I was never allowed to speak about it because I would get a physical punishment from my mother. When I finally found my voice I was banned from my family till this day. I only relate with my oldest brother who believes in me and supports me as well. The shame and guilt haunted me for years. It’s been 4 years since I could finally talk about it after finding help with a therapist. I still have trust issues and nightmares sometimes. Thanks for the support this site provides victims of sexual abuse.

  7. coveblue

    Thank you for this article and for all of the comments below. I have been dealing with so many of these issues for years without ever understanding or acknowledging that they were actually symptoms of my childhood abuse and not personality defects. I am 46 years old and only just now beginning to understand what an incredible impact this has had in every area of my life and how debilitating it has been. However, it’s also very liberating to know that these ARE symptoms, they ARE NOT my fault, and they can be cured through counseling. I feel very optimistic about my future even though my journey is literally only now just beginning. It is incredibly helpful to read the experiences of others who have gone through sexual abuse and to know that many of us have managed a successful recovery. Thank you for being so supportive of each other.

    1. Wonderland

      I can relate so much to this. I, too, am in my early 40s and have just realized all the damage that has been done and the true impact the abuse has had on every single aspect of my life. How altered my everyday actions and reactions from seemingly minor issues to the grand issues of day to day life. I hate it because I know this is direct result from the abuse I endured.

      I was abused by my bio father from the time I was an infant that couldn’t hold my head up unsupported to the time my mother and father divorced when I was three. Only to be further abused by my step father and a my mother who joined in on the abuse until I moved out of the house at 17.

      Often times I can mentally lose myself in thoughts about the “what ifs”. Wondering “what if” I was never abused? “What if” I had a mother that actually protected me from those preditors? It’s a never ending cycle that never stops.

      However, with all of that, there is a silver lining. Because of everything I’ve been through, I’m very in tune with others feelings which makes me extremely compassionate to others if they express hurt or pain. I’m very understanding and an very present active listener if someone needs a shoulder to cry on or just needs to vent. I like that about myself. I like that others can trust me with their thoughts and feelings. I also know that I’m this way because of all that I went through as a child. While I wish I never had to go through the horrific abuse, I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I never went through that.

      I hope you find all the peace you need and deserve! Take care of you and may you find happiness and understanding in every step of your journey!

  8. Kaye

    Interesting and upsetting read but good to know that even after 35 years of that traumatic night, how I’m feeling is not abnormal.
    I was 12, I’m 48 now and only just addressing it, thought I’d done it! But still not quite there yet, just coming out of a very bad depressive state…,again. Couldn’t believe it when I read about severe gag reflex too, I get that when I’m struggling to convey my feelings/thoughts.

  9. Nytonix

    Dear author,
    Thank you very much for the above article. I can relate to the sign and symptoms of childhood abuse in children. It seems that I experience many of them…
    Funny thing, I’m convinced that the fact that I was sexually assaulted by my God father’s son at the age of 6 has never really bothered me that much. I was also raped 3 times in my lifetime but all 3 times I was pissed drunk, so I dont count them as real rapes. 1 has occurred in my long term committed relationship. So it’s not really a rape or it is?
    It seems that I may be in denial… but the facts remain solid: I am getting counselling for my alcohol and drugs abuse; I just stopped smoking only 4 months ago and I used to smoke 2 packs a day; I am suffering with panic attacks and was hospitalised in June with the breakdown; I am 31 single and childless and incapable of holding relationship as I am real control freak; I like tough sex and fantasize about being abused… I do feel that I live in parallel reality than everyone else… I cannot connect but I cannot be alone too. Somethimes I think that I’m really crazy. Somethimes I want to end this torture called life.
    I am getting counselling but I cannot say it to my counsellor… I once wrote it on the peace of paper and kept reading it before the session. But once I walked in, I could not say it….
    I feel ok writing about it here but not saying it face to face… it is very strange. I just want to get better. I want to be whole and complete.
    I know I will.
    Wishing everyone Well.
    RO

    1. jamie

      Hello. Thank you so much for commenting, and for sharing part of your story. I am so sorry for all that you’ve experienced. You absolutely WILL feel whole again. It takes work, and it isn’t always easy, but you can do it.

      As far as what is and isn’t rape, here’s what I do know: I know that rape is sex that occurs when someone does not consent or lacks the capacity to give consent. This does include when someone is drunk. A drunk person can’t consent to sex. Now what you do with that information is totally up to you. However you want to feel about that in regards to your own situation is totally up to you, and any way you do feel is okay.

      Also, you aren’t alone in having a hard time talking about it. Many, many people are in the same boat. That’s why so many people like having a site like this where they can write out their experiences as opposed to talking out loud about them. Sometimes it’s just hard to say it. I totally get that. Have you ever considered writing something out and giving it to your counselor? It might be a bit easier to break the ice that way.

      Either way, know that we support you here. And know that you’re welcome here anytime. If you ever feel like you really need to talk to someone, or you’re having a hard time, please know you can text VOICE to 741741 and instantly be connected with a counselor.

      Best of luck to you, and please let us know if we can support you at all.

  10. T-Boi

    Hi Mr. Sivrais and to all, I’m T-Boi. I found this website extremely helpful. And yes but unfortunately I too was a C.S.A. and continues molestations as early as toddler (I’ll simply insinuate to pre-pubescent every few years either one family member and the rest strangers) However, I am now in my 20’s and receiving Therapy (in which my premature old “habits” arise again). I relate way too much with the symptoms above and more. I honestly have to occupy myself to keep the disturbing images and thoughts away. I really appreciate your bravery, honesty, support and wisdom for those who have yet to stumbled upon it (in which we are not alone and we do matter). Thank you – T-Boi

    1. jamie

      Hi T-Boi. Thanks for being here. I am so sorry to hear of what you experienced, and am happy that you’ve been able to find a bit of solace in this site. There are people who are here to help you, so please let us know if there’s anything we are able to do to support you. I am happy to hear that you’re in therapy, and I wish you all the best.

  11. Alice

    I feel sad. I was raped by a Catholic priest at 9. There weren’t websites like this back then. I’m 35 now and I have never developed sexual trust and am frequently suicidal. I Don’t know the solution to this suicide problem.

    1. sasst92

      Alice, I am sorry to hear your story and hope there has been improvement. It’s easier said than done, but acceptance of what is and eventual forgiveness to the past is the often the way out mentally/emotionally to live for the future. Finding focus on at least one thing in life that gives you joy and using your story to help others can also be hopeful goals. Thank you for sharing.

    2. jamie

      Hi Alice. I am so sorry to hear this. I hope you are doing well. Please know that there is hope! And if you are struggling especially hard at any given time, you can text VOICE to 741741 and instantly be connected with a crisis counselor. There are so many people out here who are ready to help and support you. I hope you are well.

    3. Jerry

      Hi Alice I understand how you feel. I was molested by my grandfather and my father when I was 5. I used to be very suicidal too and have attempted it several times. I did eventually manage to overcome my suicidal feelings though! There is hope!

  12. kariorit

    I would also add a severe startle reflex. This was eye opening to me when I learned that my tendency to startle easily was because of the abuse.

    1. sasst92

      I would agree with that as I’ve walked in the bedroom after my wife had gone to bed an hour or so earlier and she almost always startles and sits up quickly in deep seated fear before realizing it’s me. I don’t know the details of her past abuse and she’s unwilling to see a therapist or share with me, so am at a loss. I feel so bad for her pain and what could be for our relationship.