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You are here: Home >> Resources >> Handouts >> The effects of child sexual abuse

September, 2004

Child sexual assault presents a serious risk to the survivor's mental health, both during childhood and into adulthood.  For many children, the effects continue long after the abuse has ended and/or disclosure of the abuse.  Following is a list of some of the common behavioral and physical effects of sexual abuse on a child.  It is important to note that almost all of the signs listed are general indicators that a child is under stress.  A child exhibiting these symptoms has not necessarily been sexually abused.  The symptoms are warning signs that require further inquiry.

Young Children (Infancy to Five Years)

Sudden weight loss or gain
Abdominal pain, vomiting, and/or urinary tract infections
Perineal bruising
Sexually transmitted infections
Sleep disturbances and nightmares
Compulsive masturbation
Precocious sex play
Loss of toilet training or other regressive behavior
Frequent bathing
Crying with no provocation
Fearfulness and anxiety
Disclosures about sexual abuse
Sudden rejection of normal physical affection
Sudden reluctance to be with a specific person or go to a specific place
Extraordinary fear of males (or females)
Art work or drawings with sexual images
Latency-Age Children (Six to 11 Years)

Children over the age of five may exhibit any or all of the behaviors and symptoms described above for younger children, plus:

Perfectionism, over-achievement
Overzealous cleaning
Silence and/or acting as if nothing is happening
Health problems with no explanations
Eating disorders
Adolescents (12 to 18 Years)

Adolescents may show the behaviors and symptoms indicated for younger children above and may also exhibit:

Sudden school failure
Running away from home
Criminal behaviors
Drug problems
Promiscuity, prostitution
Self-injury/self-destructive behaviors and/or suicide attempts
Compulsive behaviors
Sudden mood and behavioral shifts
Sexually aggressive behaviors
Aggressiveness and bullying
Withdrawal from family/friends

The emotional consequences of abuse impact each child differently, depending on a wide variety of factors, including the age of the child, the child's relationship to the perpetrator(s), frequency of abuse, and specific type of abuse.  Some of the common feelings experienced by sexually abused children include: guilt, betrayal, shame, self-hatred, fear, anxiety, identification with the perpetrator, a need to maintain control, depression, numbing of emotions, denial, distrust of self or others, rage, helplessness, repression, confusion about sexual issues/identity/norms, alienation from others, and loneliness.

This material was excerpted from Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault: A Journey to Justice, Health, and Healing.  A Publication of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in Collaboration with The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

See also:
Understanding the sexuality of children
Sexual abuse continuum

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