Q&A: Supporting survivors of childhood sexual abuse

Mom speaks encouragingly to young daughter with hand on shoulder

Experiencing childhood sexual abuse can impact a person well after the abuse ends. With the right support and resources, many survivors are able to recover and move forward in a healthy way. We asked clinical psychologist Candice Norcott, PhD, to offer guidance to survivors, as well as parents, family members and friends seeking to help loved ones who experienced sexual abuse as children.

What are common reactions to sexual abuse in children?

The effects of sexual abuse are wide and varied. While there is certainly no identical profile for how someone reacts, there are some common features depending on developmental level.

At preschool age, children may experience anxiety, nightmares and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may engage in inappropriate sexual behavior, including sexualized play with toys.

In older children, common symptoms may include fear, worsening mental health, aggression, nightmares, school problems, hyperactivity and regressive behavior (acting younger than their age).

In adolescents and teens, depression or complaints of physical distress are common. They may isolate themselves from friends or family or even run away from home. At this age, children may also engage in suicidal or self-harming behaviors, increased sexual risk-taking behaviors, illegal acts and substance misuse.

How can childhood sexual abuse impact someone in adulthood?

Many people are able to adapt their experiences of violence and/or abuse into their lives, going on to have healthy relationships and engage in positive coping. Not to say that they aren’t impacted — but, their lives aren’t completely derailed. They aren’t better or worse because of what happened to them. Common characteristics of these individuals include protective factors like peer support or parents who have believed them when they disclosed.

For those who struggle to adapt, experiences of childhood sexual abuse can negatively impact their social and intimate relationships. Many children who have experience violence feel the abuse was their fault. This harmful belief can follow an individual into adulthood, setting an expectation for abuse in all relationships.

Sexual abuse can also impact physical health. Research shows that individuals with histories of childhood sexual abuse are at increased risk for functional gastrointestinal problems, gynecologic pain, cardiopulmonary symptoms, substance misuse and risky sexual behaviors.

Do people recover from childhood sexual abuse?

Absolutely! But, there is no single timeline or path to recovery for everyone. Therapy can be very helpful for survivors as they navigate the confusion and disruption that sexual abuse causes. Forming a relationship with a therapist or counselor can be healing at a time when it feels like getting close to someone has been unsafe in the past.

It is important to be kind to yourself after trauma, and having healthy coping strategies is vital. Part of that self-care is being mindful of the media you consume — especially early in your recovery process. Stories or images of violence or victimization can be harmful emotional triggers for people with histories of sexual abuse.

What should I do if I find out or suspect that a child has been sexually abused?

Reporting abuse

If your child or a child you know is in danger, do not hesitate to call 911. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673) to talk to someone from your local sexual assault service provider. Or, call the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) to be connected with a trained volunteer who can help you through the process of reporting the crime.

Certain professionals are mandated reporters, meaning they are required by law to report abuse. Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) suggests repeating the following messages through your own thoughts and words:

  • I love you.
  • What happened is not your fault.
  • I will do everything I can to keep you safe.

How can I support a friend who has disclosed their history of sexual abuse to me?

If you are a minor and your friend discloses, tell a trusted adult. Friends often do not want to make it a “big deal.” But, it is a big deal, and it will not go away. Telling an adult sends the message that you care about your friend and you want to keep them safe.

If you are an adult and a friend or partner discloses abuse to you, do not dig for details. Instead, tell them you believe them, and validate the courage it took to tell you. Remind them that it is not their fault and that they are not alone. Avoid judging them for being affected by their experiences no matter how long ago it happened. Know your resources and encourage them to seek help from professionals. Your job is to encourage your friend to take steps to self-care. You are not supposed to be equipped to manage someone’s emotional health for them.

Find Help Near You

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. Contact RAINN to connect yourself or a loved one with local resources and support.

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UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial offers free mental health assessments for adolescents and adults. Our Assessment and Referral Team is available 24/7 by appointment. Walk-ins are also welcome.

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