Symptoms of sexual abuse

​In brief

 

  • There are no symptoms or syndrome that would specifically indicate sexual abuse and would be typically shown by the majority of sexual abuse victims. For this reason, sexual abuse cannot be verified on the basis of psychological symptoms.
  • Sexual abuse refers to a broad range of experiences with varying consequences.
  • Not all children who have become victims of sexual abuse react in the same way; a significant share of abused children show no visible symptoms. While some children develop symptoms immediately, sometimes the onset of symptoms occurs months or even years after experiencing abuse. The symptoms may also change over time.
  • As parents' reactions might affect the children's ability to cope with the experience of sexual abuse, parents might need help in supporting their children.
  • The most common symptoms linked to sexual abuse are various stress symptoms and overly sexualised behaviour.


There is no uniform symptom profile for sexual abuse
 
Children and adolescents have highly distinctive reactions to sexual abuse. While some begin experiencing symptoms immediately, others do so months or even years after the sexual abuse was revealed. With some children the symptoms disappear within a year, for example, but with others they worsen over time. Some sexual abuse victims show no symptoms at all.
 
Becoming a victim of sexual abuse does not constitute a psychiatric diagnosis or a syndrome that would always lead to certain types of symptoms or behaviour. It is rather an event that either has or has not happened. In addition to the nature of experienced abuse, the child's level of development, individual characteristics, personality and growth environment play a role in how the abuse affects the child. Child sexual abuse might therefore cause varying, highly distinct reactions, and not all children who have become victims of sexual abuse show a similar symptom profile. Moreover, as approximately a third of sexual abuse victims show no visible symptoms, the experience of becoming sexually abused does not automatically mean a deterioration in one's condition.
 
Sexual abuse can be overcome
 
Due to the reasons described above, there are several possible adverse effects resulting from sexual abuse. This might cause worry of your own child's future well-being if he or she has become a victim of sexual abuse. It is good to remember, however, that any symptoms arising can be influenced and treated. Not all symptoms or behaviour shown by the child necessarily have their roots in sexual abuse: similar symptoms might be found in children who have experienced sexual abuse and children who have not. This means that a large share of symptoms found in sexual abuse victims are also common in children who have not experienced sexual abuse Many other stressful situations (for example school-related stress, moving house, divorce of the parents, death of a close relative) may also cause the child to experience symptoms. On the other hand, small children and adolescents alike might exhibit age-appropriate behaviour that causes adults to worry, even in cases where the child has experienced no stress or traumatic events.
 
Wide array of possible symptoms
 
Possible symptoms experienced by children and adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse may range from mild to more severe and from short- to long-term. Symptoms and mental health problems resulting from sexual abuse might include depression, anxiety, various phobias, sleeping problems, aggression and eating disorders. Various types of behavioural problems are also possible. Children and adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse might also develop distorted ideas regarding the event, for example as to why it happened or whose fault it was. These ideas might be accompanied by feelings of guilt, worthlessness or distrust. The child or adolescent might also have mixed feelings about the event. Despite what happened, the child might still have positive feelings about the perpetrator if they were close, even if experiencing hatred towards this person at the same time. The child might also have negative feelings towards the adult who takes care of the child, and might behave in a hostile manner when the adult attempts to express closeness to the child and protect him or her.
 
The most common symptoms linked to sexual abuse are various stress symptoms and overly sexualised behaviour. However, these symptoms can also have other causes, and are quite often found in children who have not experienced sexual abuse.