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Research has demonstrated that an alarming number of adults were abused or sexually assaulted as children. Years after the abuse, many of these now adults continue to struggle to come out of their shells and thrive. Although they’ve been deeply wounded and scarred, they are survivors. These traumatic experiences can lead to mental disorders, emotional issues, and in some cases, physical pain. Below are five ways that childhood abuse may affect survivors into adulthood.

1. Suppressed memories and emotions

It is rare that victims of childhood sexual abuse report the actions of the perpetrator to either their family or the authorities. In fact, research has shown that 45% of childhood sexual abuse survivors will not report the act until after at least 5 years have passed. Most times, when children are sexually abused, the perpetrator has deliberately instilled fear and shame in the child to ensure the abuse is not reported. The methods used to manipulate children are diverse; at times children are convinced that they are receiving this treatment because they are special. Other times children are told the abuse is what they deserve. An abused child generally feels ashamed, guilty, and afraid. Some children might pretend the abuse never happened.

These feelings of panic, disgust, failure, fear, and shame are bottled up inside, gradually eating away at these survivors and their self-esteem. On the outside they might seem alright but deep down, they go through tremendous emotional pain. The suppressed emotions and memories never really go away and sometimes manifest themselves as nightmares, sudden panic attacks and flashbacks.

Some children find the courage to report their abusers, only to be dismissed, reprimanded, punished, or even scorned. These children withdraw into themselves and become shadows of their former selves. They have learned the lesson that they are on their own and that asking for help only makes things worse.

Survivors of sexual abuse rarely love themselves. They lack self-worth and have chronic negative thoughts about themselves and their future.

2. Trust and intimacy become insurmountable barriers

Children are often sexually abused by someone they know, trust, and even love. The abuse rips away their innocence at an early age and makes them wary of love and affection. Even as they grow older, these survivors find it hard to trust another person. Most of them also struggle to enjoy or accept intimacy. Many erect mental and emotional walls to protect themselves whenever anyone tries to get too close.

3. High risk of substance abuse and self-harm

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to suffer mental health disorders like depression, chronic anxiety, and even eating disorders. To cope, some might find solace in drugs and alcohol. Others might entertain thoughts of self-harm or worse, suicide.

4. Sexual health challenges

Studies have shown that survivors of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to suffer from sexually related diseases and deficiencies; from chronic pelvic pain to fertility issues. They can also easily contract a long-suffering STD from the perpetrator of the sexual crime and suffer the debilitating effect for years.

5. Continuous cycle of victimization

Children who have suffered sexual abuse are more likely to experience abuse as adults. There are complex psychological reasons for this. One reason is that children who have been abused have had their boundaries violated in perhaps the worst possible way. The abuse can make it hard for survivors to recognize future boundary crossings. Their sense of “normal” has been damaged. They may accept relationships that feel familiar, rather than tuning into how well a person treats them. For others, they have learned that their voice doesn’t matter. Why bother speaking up to set limits if they aren’t going to be respected? Research has demonstrated that survivors are less likely to set healthy boundaries in their relationships.


Childhood sexual assault has profound long-term effects on both the physical and mental health of the survivor. But all hope is not lost. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it is important to seek help immediately. Book an appointment with a therapist, visit the gynecologist for thorough examination and treatment. It is never too late to start letting those wounds heal.

Contact New Connections Counseling Center for help.

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About the Author:

Cathy Sullivan-Windt

Psychologist (Ph.D.) & Owner

Cathy is a licensed counseling psychologist with almost 20 years of experience. She specializes in women’s counseling, anxiety treatment, sexual assault recovery, life transitions, and relationship issues.

In her free time, she enjoys spending time in nature, traveling, reading, and being with her family and friends.

Read More About Cathy

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