Too often I hear stories of adults who did not notice what was happening to their child, or who explained disturbing changes in his behavior by temperament, age. Therefore, I will list 11 mental problems that children who are victims of sexual abuse or harassment often face.
This list is not a diagnostic guide and is not a substitute for professional advice. I tried to combine together the typical symptoms that lead people to seek the help of a therapist. The list is far from complete, and each symptom individually can be caused by other causes. Symptoms can manifest differently depending on age, trauma, temperament, and resilience of each person.
1. Dissociation (feeling alienated from oneself) is probably the most common defense mechanism by which the psyche tries to protect itself from trauma caused by sexual abuse. It is as if the mind escapes from the body in situations of extreme stress, a feeling of powerlessness, severe pain and suffering.
2. Self-harm. Trauma survivors inflict physical harm on themselves in an attempt to cope with the emotional and psychological pain that torments them. Studies show that cuts trigger the release of endorphins, which provide a temporary sense of peace and tranquility.
3. Anxiety and fear. In survivors of sexual assault, the body’s stress response system is often overly active. This manifests itself in the strongest attacks of fear, social phobia, panic attacks. It is as if the body is constantly on the alert and cannot relax.
4. Nightmares. Victims of violence, as well as war veterans, suffer from haunting painful memories and nightmares.
5. Alcoholism and drug addiction. People who have experienced severe mental trauma often try to find solace in alcohol and drugs. Experimenting with drugs during adolescence cannot be considered normal, especially if the adolescent is aware of the possible consequences.
6. Hypersexuality. This is a typical reaction to early and traumatic sexual experiences. If a child very early begins to masturbate regularly, to show sexual interest (in games or in life), most often this is a sign that he was a witness or participant in some kind of sexual activity of adults. In adolescence and adulthood, hypersexuality can manifest itself in promiscuous sexual relations, prostitution, and filming in pornographic films.
7. Psychotic manifestations. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often develop paranoia, hallucinations, and transient psychoses.
8. Mood swings, tantrums, irritability. Children often find it difficult to express their feelings in words, so they express them through actions. Sometimes adults behave this way too. People who have experienced severe trauma often suffer from mood swings, irritability, and brain disturbances that can lead to depression, mania, anxiety, and outbursts of anger.
9. Relationship problems, difficulty maintaining long-term friendships or romantic relationships. Harassment victims often stop trusting others, become afraid of people, and therefore find it difficult to maintain long-term relationships based on mutual trust.
10. Regression (mainly in children). Enuresis (nighttime urination in bed) and encopresis (involuntary bowel movements) in a child who has been potty trained, sudden and unexplained tantrums or outbursts, unusual impulsivity or compulsive attention needs, and other sudden changes in behavior can often be a sign of what has happened something terrible.
11. Physiological, psychosomatic and autoimmune disorders. Many doctors and psychotherapists have written that the memories of trauma seem to be stored in our body because the mind repels them. In psychoanalysis, they are called unconscious, since they often appear unnoticed by the person himself. When the unthinkable happens, the mind is saved by using the body to express experiences that cannot be expressed in words.
About the author: Michaela Bernhardt, counseling psychologist, psychoanalyst, works with children and adolescents.