Sexual trauma occurs when someone is tricked, forced, manipulated or coerced into unwanted sexual activity.Sexual trauma includes any sexual contact between a child and any other person, whether the other person is an adult or another child; Any use of physical force, violence, threats, or intimidation to force or coerce a person into sexual activity; Any use of drugs or alcohol to cause a person to become intoxicated in order to force or coerce them into sexual activity; Any unwanted, forced, or coerced penetration with any object; Any sexual activity, including: sex, touching or fondling, exposure to adult sexual activity or pornography, or any other sexual experience that may or may not include threats or violence
The most common form of sexual trauma is sexual abuse, which involves any coerced and/or unwanted sexual activity. Sexual abuse is traumatizing to everyone concerned because it undermines trust and affects the ability to have healthy relationships.
Childhood sexual abuse can affect your life and your relationships in many ways. Becoming aware of how childhood experiences have colored your life can result in healing on many levels. I will offer sensitive intuitive observations that facilitate the healing process. Sometimes people are confused about what happened and are unsure how to make sense of their experiences. If you think you may have been abused as a child, and you have never spoken to anyone about it, I can help to provide insight and clarity. Be aware that there are reporting laws related to sexual and other abuse, and these will be explained to you during the intake process.
Symptoms of Adolescent Sexual Trauma
While there is no clear profile of a sexually abused child, the research indicates that there are symptoms that present frequently in young survivors. These include the following:
- Anxiety/Numbing: Young people who have been sexually abused often exhibit the polarity of anxiety/numbing behaviors. These youth are hypervigilant, scanning the environment for threats to their safety; conversely they have learned to shut down their feelings. The chronicity of the abuse plays a part in the level of anxiety experienced by child victims. Youth who have been assaulted through most of their developmental phases have learned to maintain a defensive posture to protect themselves. They have learned the most debilitating lesson of child abuse: people who love you hurt you. For these children, the expression of caring is presumed to be followed by harm or danger.
- Hypersensitivity: People growing up in violent or abusive environments tend to be hypersensitive to their surroundings. They flinch at sudden noises and are hyperaroused or overstimulated easily. They may experience acute fear in some situations and typically “stay on alert,” which requires energy and takes a tremendous toll on their physical and mental well-being. They tend to carry a lot of tension in their bodies, so they may not move as fluidly as other children. Many of these youth present somatic concerns, such as always having headaches or stomach pains. Again, the chronicity of the abuse is an important factor in the degree to which young people develop hypersensitivity. If the abuse is an isolated incident, the child is better able to regroup. When the assault is frequent or long term, the child does not have respite to reorganize or stabilize and must develop highly refined defense mechanisms.
- Depression: Even the youngest children who have been abused exhibit characteristics of depression. They may have a flat affect, not make eye contact, or not laugh. There are many manifestations of depression, including self-mutilation, substance abuse, and eating or sleeping disorders.
- Alcohol or Drug Use: While some young people may experiment with drugs or alcohol as a rite of passage, youth who were or are abused use substances to numb their feelings.
- Problem Sexual Behaviors: Children who were sexually abused may become involved in sexual acting-out behaviors, particularly when they reach adolescence, a time of increasing biological urges and exposure to sexual education. Under normal conditions, sexual behavior develops gradually over time, with youth showing curiosity and then experimenting with themselves and others. When children are sexually abused, however, they are prematurely exposed to material they do not understand and cannot make sense of. Some children who were sexually abused also may become sexually provocative, dressing and talking in a manner that puts them at risk of further sexual exploitation. Others merge sexual behavior and aggression and become the victimizers of other children.
- Aggression: Eventually, most abused children get angry and some begin to act aggressively, typically with smaller children. This is the victim-victimizer dynamic; abused children learn that the bigger, stronger person hurts or takes advantage of the smaller, weaker person. Youth who have been victimized are conditioned to believe that when two people interact, one of them will be hurt. At each interaction with others, they may wonder who will be hurt this time. Some children adopt the victim role; others become the victimizers. In either case, they simply are playing out the roles that they have been conditioned to believe people play during interactions with others. Young people who have survived sexual abuse can just as easily learn more positive behaviors. They need support in both working through the trauma and addressing the developmental stages they may have missed because of the abuse. This includes the critical step of developing an identity separate from their family or caretaker.
Effects of Adolescent Sexual Trauma
Sexual trauma is emotionally extremely upsetting and can cause a number of emotional difficulties. Each individual’s experience is unique. Different people respond to sexual trauma in different ways and to varying degrees.
Although some teenagers report that they feel much better within three months of the event; others recover more slowly, and some require counseling in order to feel like themselves again. Those who do not recover on their own may have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can interfere significantly with everyday life. Fortunately, the symptoms of PTSD can improve with treatment.
When to seek Adolescent Sexual Trauma Counseling
Though there is nothing we can do to make past events disappear, there are ways to help pick up the pieces and help our children (girls and boys) develop into healthy adults. The same is true of assisting men and women who’ve experienced sexual trauma in the past to reclaim their right to a healthy sexual life and rewarding relationships. If you believe, or those around you believe, that your symptoms may be impairing your life in troubling ways, then it may be time to seek help. There are treatments available to assist you in managing your symptoms and improving your quality of life.