Symptoms of abuse in a child
The symptoms caused by abuse or sexual abuse are diverse and the consequences of such events can be far-reaching. The child’s symptoms can be affected and treated.
Symptoms of sexual abuse
There are no symptoms or a syndrome specifically suggestive of abuse, which would be typical for the majority of those who have experienced abuse and, therefore, the experience of abuse cannot be established on the basis of psychological symptoms.
Sexual abuse refers to a wide range of experiences and acts of varying degrees of severity. As a result, also the consequences of abuse are different. Not all abused children react to it in the same way, and a significant proportion of abused children have no visible symptoms at all. Some children begin to show symptoms immediately, while others start showing symptoms months or even years after the abuse. Symptoms may also change over time.
Parents’ actions affect the children’s ability to deal with the abuse experience, which is why parents may need help in supporting their child. The most common symptoms associated with sexual abuse are different symptoms of stress, moods and behavior, as well as different types of fears.
Due to the diverse experiences and adverse effects, lists of possible adverse effects of sexual abuse may be long, which may cause concern for the future well-being of a child if they have been a victim of sexual abuse. However, it is good to remember that it is possible to recover from the experience of sexual abuse and the event does not determine the entire course of the child’s life. Possible symptoms resulting from abuse can be affected and treated.
Also, not all symptoms or behaviors observed in a child may be the result of sexual abuse. The same symptoms can occur in a child who has experienced abuse as in a child who has not been a victim of abuse. The symptoms associated with abuse are largely the same as in children who have experienced other stressful events in their lives (such as the parents divorcing, a loved one dying, moving to a new home, as well as other situations involving stress). On the other hand, both young children and adolescents, without experiencing any stress or traumatic events, may also exhibit age-appropriate behavior that causes concern in adults.
It is very individual how a child or adolescent reacts to sexual abuse. Some develop symptoms immediately, while others begin to show symptoms only months or even years after the abuse has come to light, for example, during puberty. Some people stop exhibiting symptoms, for example, within a year, while for others, they get worse over time.
Being sexually abused is not a psychiatric diagnosis or a syndrome that would always result in any specific types of symptoms or behavior. In addition to the characteristics of the abuse experienced, the child’s level of development and individual characteristics, personality and growing environment affect the impact of the abuse on the child. Sexual abuse of a child can therefore cause very different and individual reactions, and the same symptoms are not observed in all abused children. In addition, approximately a third of those who have experienced abuse do not show any visible symptoms, so experience of abuse does not automatically mean a deterioration in their well-being.
The possible symptoms of children and adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse may range from mild to more severe and from short-term to longer in duration. Various symptoms and mental health problems caused by sexual abuse may include depression, anxiety, various types of fears, sleeping difficulties, aggression, and eating disorders. In addition, different types of behavioral problems and overly sexual behavior may occur.
Children and adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse may also develop abuse-related thought distortions, such as why the incident occurred or whose fault it was, and these may be accompanied by feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or mistrust. A child or young person may also have conflicting feelings about what has happened. They can still feel positive feelings for the perpetrator if it has been someone close to the child, although at the same time, they may experience hatred toward the abuser. The child may also feel negative feelings towards the adult caring for them and, for example, behave in a hostile manner as the adult seeks to show intimacy with the child and protect the child.
Symptoms of assault
The abuse/assault of a child is a multifaceted phenomenon that is likely to harm the physical, mental and social development of the child. The consequences of abuse can be far-reaching.
Children experience violence of different degrees of severity and characteristics, which is why the injuries caused by violence can also be diverse. Despite physical injuries, according to research data, all forms of violence against children are also harmful to their psychological and social development, and the consequences of violence can be far-reaching.
The adverse effects of violence are related to, among other things, the challenges of behavior and emotional life, as well as substance use and mental health problems, such as mood and anxiety disorders. The more frequent and serious the violence, the more serious the consequences have been estimated to be. Some abused children may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The far-reaching consequences of violence can affect later relationship and parenting skills by conveying an aggressive problem-solving model to the child. The abuse of children has also been seen as being inter-generationally transmitted; children who have experienced abuse are more likely to abuse their own children in adulthood.
In most cases, the abuse of a child is so-called disciplinary violence, which leaves no permanent physical injuries. Studies have shown that violence exhibited during disciplining a child has harmful consequences for the relationship between a parent and a child and for the mental well-being of the child (e.g. aggressive behavior, low self-esteem, mood problems) and disciplinary violence has not been seen to be linked to positive changes in the child’s behavior, in which case the method is an ineffective form of upbringing.
It is often impossible to distinguish the effect of mere abuse on a child’s symptoms or development from other possible negative life experiences. In addition to experiences of abuse, symptoms are influenced by other risk and protective factors. In the case of children who have experienced abuse, it is not uncommon that they have also experienced other forms of abuse. According to studies, the accumulation of many types of abuse against the same victim or repeated experiences of violence are particularly detrimental to the child’s development. On the other hand, not all children who have experienced serious violence report any significant mood problems at a later age.
The harmfulness of the abuse suffered by a child cannot be assessed by looking at their condition in the short term, because children exhibit symptoms in an individual manner. Some children develop symptoms immediately, while others only start to show symptoms even years after the end of the assaults. In some, symptoms can last for years and worsen over time, while in others, symptoms may disappear quite quickly. Some symptoms in a child or adolescent may not be visible to the outside, but they can still cause significant harm to their health. However, even serious experiences of abuse and violence can be overcome through timely and appropriate support. It is especially important that the child is surrounded by safe adults with whom they can talk about even difficult issues.