Child sexual abuse is a widespread problem that is, unfortunately, associated with stigma, shame and a tendency to secretly push under the carpet. Thus, in most instances, it often goes unreported. The family of the victim may also wish to avoid the societal stigma and public humiliation if it were to become common knowledge. All of these factors act independently and in tandem to ensure that we hardly ever hear about these cases, even though they may be happening right under our noses.
But this culture of silence and secrecy is unhelpful. On the one hand, it results in a situation where perpetrators often go scot-free; they escape sanctions as well as public ridicule and humiliation for their actions, whereas the burden of shame and the emotional turmoil and scars are borne by the young and innocent victims (and their families) for the rest of their lives.
What are the emotional consequences for such people who have had these experiences? How can we help?
Low self-esteem and confidence
Individuals who have had such experiences often feel that they are somehow ‘damaged’ and not like others. Thus, they may suffer from low self-esteem and be lacking in self-confidence. Or they may constantly feel weak and vulnerable. Such perceptions are wrong and should be countered.
The reality is that they are survivors who have every reason to hold their heads high because they were able to withstand the adversity and cruelty of the adult perpetrators and they still have their entire life ahead of them. They need to stop looking back, or at best, do so only to the extent of taking away some lessons from the experience. But they should be forward-looking, with optimism and work towards achieving their dreams and goals.
Trust and relationship issues
In nine out of 10 cases, the perpetrator is usually a known and trusted adult who may be family (including household staff such as drivers, gatemen, e.t.c.), a teacher, a neighbour or religious leader. So, a relationship of trust and safety was turned on its head and replaced with fear, hurt, threats and intimidation. The sense of betrayal is usually very strong, leading to a lifetime of difficulties with trusting others.
This usually has ramifications for their ability to develop emotional relationships, leading to marriage. And even where they succeed in getting married, the past experience may continually colour their perceptions and negatively affect their relationships or quality of marriage.
Emotional turmoil and uncertainty
Childhood sexual abuse often results in confusion and several unresolved questions for the child. Why is he doing this to me? But my parents tell me that there is a God who watches over us all? Why didn’t my parents protect me? Who can I talk to? Was it my fault? Did I do something wrong? Should I be angry at myself? My Parents? The perpetrator? Everyone? So, an admixture of feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anger, and despair may persist with such survivors for the rest of their lives.
Mental health challenges in adulthood
Survivors are prone to experiencing depression, anxiety and have persisting difficulties with relationships. They may carry the invisible emotional scars that last for a long time and affect all aspects of their life. Some people may indulge in self-destructive behaviours such as turning to alcohol and drugs, self-loathing and chaotic sexual lifestyles. Others may exhibit suicidal tendencies.
Did you experience sexual abuse as a child?
First, no matter what, the abuse was not your fault. It’s never too late to start healing from this experience. The entire spectrum of possible consequences listed above is the negative and traumatic reactions. However, they do not occur to each and everyone who has experienced it.
Some may have only a few or none of these negative consequences and may have successfully turned the corner. However, if you are still having some of these challenges, you may need to seek professional help from a mental health professional.
But be rest assured that with help, you can successfully put it behind you, rebuild your life and go on to enjoy a successful and fulfilling life. You are a gallant survivor despite the odds.
How can I help a friend with these experiences?
Do not be judgemental or dismissive about their feelings. Avoid statements such as “it’s being almost 20 years now, so just forget it.” Show empathy, and let them know that you are always there for them. Emphasise that it is not their fault and they should not blame themselves.
Constantly check in on them and support them. Be patient with them, as these symptoms may infrequently rise to the surface – even after a long time. Do not become tired or fed up. However, if you feel symptoms are severe enough, consider seeing a mental health professional.
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