PTSD and Childhood Sex Abuse
How childhood sex abuse leads to PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD, is a grave psychological condition triggered by a traumatic or horrifying event in a person’s life, such as childhood sexual abuse. The person’s life may have been placed in mortal danger, or they may have sustained grievous injury—or there may have been the imminent threat of grievous injury. PTSD is a consequence of the feelings of powerlessness, terror, or latent phobias which often plague survivors of traumatic experiences. While PTSD has traditionally been associated with war veterans, similar symptoms have been documented in victims of accidents, natural disasters, or physical or sexual assault.
Moments of intense fear or horror create powerful echoes within a person’s psyche. It’s natural for that person to experience a broad spectrum of emotional turmoil following the event; awe, anxiety, anger, terror—even shame and guilt. In some cases, these emotions may fade with time. Frequently, however, these emotions escalate, taking over the individual’s life and making it difficult to work or have normal relationships. A person who has had PTSD symptoms for longer than a month and is experiencing difficulty with their lifestyle and functionality needs immediate help.
Attorney Lauren Cerri: PTSD is a disorder that develops after a trauma, a traumatic event. What most people think of is war veterans when they come back from combat. Victims of sexual abuse are very commonly diagnosed with PTSD. Like a war veteran that might hear a car backfire and it brings them back to the scene of battle, a child who has been sexually abused, if they see someone who looks like the perpetrator, they can immediately be brought right back to the moment of when they're being abused. They avoid the circumstances. They don't want to even drive by the school or the church where it happened. They relive it. They have nightmares or flashbacks of the person or of what happened to them. Let me give you some examples. We represented a young girl who was sexually abused by her third grade teacher under the guise of a Helen Keller study. He was blindfolding her and putting things in her mouth. When she went to the dentist, she had a male dentist and she sat in the chair. She panicked and she had to leave the room and her mom had to take her home because she could not sit in a chair and have a man put things in her mouth because she thought of what happened to her in the classroom. It brought it all back.
How to Recognize the Signs of PTSD
The first signs of PTSD may not show up until three months after the traumatic event, sometimes much longer—years, even. Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events; there is no “standard” or “right” or “wrong” way to behave after you’ve been traumatized. For this reason, the intensity, scope, and duration of post-traumatic stress differs widely between individual people. Some individuals may recover within 6 months, while others may take years to cope with their pasts. Others may never recover without the proper counseling.
PTSD may take various forms, which include but are not limited to:
- Revisiting the trauma mentally. People who suffer from chronic PTSD are unable to forget the intense experience they lived through, and repeatedly relive it in their minds and dreams—nightmares, flashbacks, even vivid hallucinations.
- Avoidance of people, places, or things. Anything which reminds the individual of a particular event may trigger unpleasant memories or flashbacks; the location where the event happened (or a location similar in appearance), people who remind the victim of their attacker, even inanimate or otherwise innocent objects. This can easily lead to social isolation and problems associating with friends, coworkers, or peers.
- Emotional instability. A person with trauma in his or her past may become easily surprised or frightened; have difficulty showing affection; find it impossible to relate to others on a personal level; overreact or underreact emotionally; or lose their ability to concentrate or focus. Physical side effects may include diarrhea, nausea, muscle twitches/tension, breathing difficulty, hyperventilation, heightened heart rate, and elevated blood pressure. The body is essentially undergoing a “fight or flight” or traumatic stress response around the clock.
- Negative self-thought. Sexual assault victims frequently have problems affixing blame to their molester. They may internalize guilt, blaming themselves for what happened. This can result in persistent, nagging shame, worthlessness, depression, self-doubt, and negative self-talk. It can even lead to suicidal thoughts.
The Impact of PTSD on Young Children
As devastating as these symptoms can be to an adult, it’s even worse when the victim was a young child. Children who suffer from PTSD may even have their physical and intellectual development delayed. Traumatized (especially sexually traumatized) children may be late in learning toilet training or have difficulty mastering motor skills, coordination, and language skills.
Young children are especially vulnerable. They do not have the emotional equipment necessary to externalize guilt and find much-needed perspective and solace in the days, months, and years following an episode of sexual abuse. Abuse can psychologically scar children for life, especially if particularly intense or long-lasting. The worse the abuse was, and the younger the child was, the more likely the child will develop chronic PTSD. This, in turn, can lead to social problems, physical deterioration and disease, and even self-harm and suicide.
Overcoming PTSD with the Right Therapeutic Approach
With the right therapeutic approach, however, anyone of any age can overcome PTSD. Therapists seek to lessen the emotional and physical impact of trauma-related stress while simultaneously helping the victim to function better in society and cope with their agonizing memories.
With children in particular, cognitive behavioral therapy helps individuals to change their destructive and self-deprecating mindsets. As was stated earlier, victims of sexual abuse—especially young ones—often blame themselves for what happened. They feel overpowering feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety. The younger they were when the abuse took place, and the more intense and long-lasting the abuse was, the more psychological damage the adult victim will be likely to incur. Cognitive behavioral therapy serves to stop these negative impulses and thoughts, and replace them with healthy, positive ones.
Family therapy may also be a wise option for victims of sexual abuse. A sex crime often casts a pall over an otherwise healthy family. The very taboo nature of sex abuse means that many families are reluctant to talk about what happened and work through the related issues on their own. A licensed therapist, however, can help a family to communicate their feelings, doubts, fears, and issues to each other in a healthy, non-confrontational way. In this manner, families can solidify the bonds between their members and heal as a group after sex abuse has taken place.
If somebody has sexually abused your child, it’s always a good idea to take them to see a licensed therapist, especially one that has experience treating sexually abused children. Even just a quick chat with the therapist will help determine whether or not your child may develop PTSD and will need further treatment, and will also serve to begin healing their psychological damage. Don’t risk your child’s future—or life. The law firm of Corsiglia McMahon & Allard represents victims of childhood sex abuse in seeking justice against their predator and/or the organization that allowed the abuse to occur. Call us at 408-289-1417.