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on psychiatry and psychology

Sexually Abused Children; Children Abused by Family Members; Victims of Sexual Abuse

Abstract: Incest does not affect all children in the same way. Also, the experience of the abuse may differ in certain aspects. This can vary with the child's age, how long the abuse continues, and how serious it is.

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Sexually Abused Children; Children Abused by Family Members; Victims of Sexual Abuse

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Written by: Lisa Levin, student of psychology at the University of Umea, under guidance by Gunborg Palme, certified psychologist, certified psychotherapist, teacher and tutor in psychotherapy.
First version: 22 Jul 2008.
Latest revision: 24 Aug 2008.

How does a child react after getting sexually abused by a family member?

Answer:

Incest does not affect all children in the same way. Also, the experience of the abuse may differ in certain aspects. This can vary with the child's age, how long the abuse continues, and how serious it is.

It is common that victims deny that the sexual abuse ever took place. Such a lack of memory does not, however, mean that they did not get hurt. The memories can come up to the surface again, later in life, when the victims end up in situations that cause similar types of feelings and body experiences to emerge. To repress these experiences is a way for the children to "survive" emotionally.

One method for children to endure the abuse is to shield themselves entirely while the abuse is taking place. Certain victims (or survivors, as the victims often are called when grown up) explain that they used to occupy their mind with something else, like counting exercises, in order to get away from being mentally present. Others describe how they saw their soul walk out through the door and that it was only the body which was left in the room and getting abused. The victims thus create a sharp line between soul and body. In this way they donĀ“t feel like they participate in the sexual act.

To feel dirty

Many victims experience the abuse situation as intimidating and threatening. After the abuse, many of the children feel very dirty, both on the inside and on the outside of the body. They also experience feelings of shame and self-contempt. This may afterwards be incorporated in the victim's self-image, and they can feel that they deserve that kind of treatment. Children who have been victims of sexual abuse may experience something called traumatic sexualization. This can occur when the child gets attention and presents after the abuse, whereupon the child learns how to manipulate their environment through their sexuality. Feelings of treachery and betrayal are common when the child realizes that a person they thought they could trust, and that they have been depending on, has let them down. Moreover, the child is totally powerless against the adult, and has been molested and used against their will. If the child has unsuccessfully tried to tell someone about the abuse, this feeling of powerlessness may become even more evident.

Difficulties talking about it

Most of the incest victims really want to tell someone about the family secret, but do not dare. That they are afraid to tell someone can, among other things, be due to the fact that they early lost their trust in adults. They may also have difficulties finding words for the abuse since they are too young to understand what really happened. The child could have tried to explain to mum what her dad is doing to her, but she did not really succeed to get mum to understand what she really meant. That way they can feel like they tried to tell, but that nobody wants to listen. Children, like adults, can in general have difficulties talking about sexuality. They can also be afraid that they will not be believed or they may feel threatened by the perpetrator. Through telling about the incest the children can lose the last bit of safety they have left, and they definitely do not want to break up the family.

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