Scars that last a lifetime

October 10, 2019

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Child sexual abuse is more common than we think. Its devastating effects on young minds can last a lifetime. On #WorldMentalHealthDay, addressing this dire issue can be a start to saving a generation.

Childhood shapes the people we go on to become. It is a time for playing and learning, surrounded by those we trust and who keep us safe.

For children whose trust has been broken, who are made to suffer from acts of grotesque exploitation, the sense of security is lost, almost completely.

Sexual abuse against children is more common than we think.

From January to July of this year, 613 rapes of children were reported in Bangladesh. There were 155 cases filed for sexual harassment. 39 children attempted suicide. And 190 committed suicide. 

These are only numbers of cases which have been reported and recorded. It’s no secret that sexual harassment is kept hidden in most cases in our society, therefore, when it comes to the actual numbers of how many children have been violated and are living with the trauma of that violation, we can let our imagination run wild.

Trauma during childhood has more severe and lifelong impacts than trauma experienced in adulthood. Abuse impacts brain development, and its stress can even change one’s brain at the cellular level.

The effects of sexual abuse are far-reaching and can effect their mental development, and remain present well into their adult lives. Children who are abused during childhood are at higher risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

How do symptoms of child sexual abuse manifest in children’s mental wellbeing? 

Mental health issues are one of the first consequences of sexual abuse against children. Though symptoms vary from child to child, immediate effects can be a sudden drop in interest towards activities the child would normally enjoy, a sudden loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, and irritability in young children. Sexual abuse induces a compounded sense of confusion, shame, guilt and despair, and children may often act out as a result. Symptoms may also include changes in hygiene (some children bathe excessively, or suddenly become hesitant to shower), increased nightmares and bed-wetting.

The anatomy of children’s responses to sexual abuse is rooted in the breach of trust and a lack of power. In most cases, the perpetrator is someone the child has a relationship with, and they are often older, or exerts power in some way or another over the child. When the act takes place, the foundations of trust are shaken. The child feels powerless. Their sense of normalcy is gone.

That breach of trust – especially if the perpetrator is someone who is very close to the child, such as an immediate family member – starts breaking away at the child’s ability to form healthy relationships throughout their childhood. Studies show that people who had been abused when they were younger had difficulties in maintaining interpersonal relationships in their adult lives. Thoughts of suicide are also higher in survivors than those who have not been abused.

Sexual abuse during childhood has lifelong impacts. The trauma from childhood sexual abuse is comparable to post-war trauma, as revealed in a study which compared PTSD symptoms between adults who experienced sexual abuse in their childhood with war veterans. Unless abuse is identified and effective treatment such as play therapy or other forms of counselling is provided, the adverse effects on a child’s mental health may carry over for decades.

Children’s resilience is the silver lining. With supportive caregivers and careful counselling, a path to healing is possible. One of the most immediate priorities for a caregiver is to reassure the sense of normalcy that was lost as a result of the abuse. Recovering from the trauma of sexual abuse can be an ongoing process, and especially difficult if the abuse happened for a long time. The first step to healing, however, can be the most difficult one: disclosure. Children are often hesitant in disclosing abuse for various reasons, but if a home has an environment of openness and compassion, where the child feels heard and their emotions validated, taking that first step can be less daunting.

The scars of abuse last a lifetime. The children who have chosen to not end their lives as a result of their trauma will carry those scars for the rest of theirs.

Luba Khalili is a deputy manager, BRAC Communications.

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