Dealing with Sexual Abuse in Children
Sexual abuse is most common in dysfunctional families, but it occurs in all socio-economic groups. It is common in institutions for children. Why? One reason is because children in institutions come from families that could not nurture or protect them, for whatever reason. Sometimes these reasons include abuse and neglect in the home. Another reason is because institutionalized children may be vulnerable and easily exploited. Why do caregivers sometimes sexually abuse the children in their care? In families, this is called incest. One reason is because sometimes they carry childhood histories of abuse by their own caregivers into their adult lives. Often, child abusers have two sides to their minds – one “the rescuer” and one “the abuser”. “The abuser” exploits the child for the adult’s own needs. Often the adult convinces himself that he is acting for the good of the child (“She wants it.”) or normalizes it (“It is natural.”). In addition, the adult often has unhappiness in his present life that tips the balance from “the rescuer” to “the abuser”. Why is the abuse so destructive? Because it is exploitative, because it involves a crucial breach of trust, because it can be transmitted from one person to the next, and finally, because it can affect the developing brain of the abused child.
In relation to that last important point, let’s look at some of the major features of childhood sexual abuse, provided by the expert in child trauma, child psychiatrist, Maria Sauzier, (Maria Sauzier, Personal Communication, 2013).
Major Things to Know about Sexual Abuse
- Children must learn to cope with their own aggressive and sexual urges; that is part of normal development.
- The vicarious expression of this part of mental and physical life can be found in fairy tales and stories throughout history and across all cultures.
- Contact with the “cruelty of nature” is part of everyday life, especially in traditional and rural societies (animal slaughter, etc.).
- Most children witness adults arguing, are punished, and see others punished. This punishment is physical in some cultures.
- Some children live in unsafe neighborhoods where they have early contact with the cruelty of human beings.
- Children may witness violence in their own homes – towards a parent or a sibling.
- Children may be treated with violence, in their home or their school, as punishment.
- Some children’s bodies are treated with violent or sexual acts for the sadistic or sexual gratification of adults.
It is important to realize that the ascending curve of these various levels of contact with aggression and sex has no matching curve of distress, or of internal (depression, anxiety) or external (acting out behaviors) response. Instead, the reactions of children to violence and sexuality or sexual stimulation do not follow any predictable pattern.
The whole of the child’s brain does not grow uniformly; various parts of the child’s brain grow at a faster pace at any given time. Stress reactions will influence the part of the brain that happens to be in a fast-growth mode the most severely.
Children are also born with a variety of levels of reactivity to being stressed. Some babies startle in response to benign new experiences, while others will take even unpleasant experiences in stride. Their brains are wired differently, and the level of stress that will provoke the neurochemical cascade of stress reactivity varies widely.
Once the cascade of neurochemical hormones is activated, it follows the same pattern in humans as in animals in the response to perceived danger: the production of adrenaline prepares the body to react to the danger either with fight or with flight. These are normal reactions that have ensured the survival of the species. A third reaction is not helpful: freezing, going blank, without a coherent strategy is maladaptive in all cases.
Once the danger is over, the high adrenaline and cortisol levels circulating through the body and the brain need to be metabolized, deactivated, because the effects of high levels are not healthy. If this does not happen, the consequences may be high blood pressure, rapid respiration or heart rate, the diversion of blood supply from the gut and other internal organs to the muscles, or mental alertness to the point of oversensitivity to any sign of threat.
If this cascade is triggered frequently in the course of a child’s growing up, the child may stay on constant alert. The child’s brain is bathed in neurochemicals that will change his or her growth pattern and may lead to subtle or not so subtle changes that may take one of three major paths:
(1) Fast and indiscriminate reactivity; expecting danger where there is none and fleeing from it; feeling that you are on your own without support; no capacity to trust, being less capable of using higher levels of brain functioning that allow planning and flexibility, an inability to have a quiet, receptive brain in order to learn or even listen, need for constant stimulation expressed in risk-taking behavior. (2) Fast and indiscriminate reactivity; expecting danger where there is none and fleeing from it; feeling that you are on your own without support; no capacity to trust, being less capable of using higher levels of brain functioning that allow planning and flexibility, an inability to have a quiet, receptive brain in order to learn or even listen, risk-averse behaviors, sometimes to the point of paralysis. (3) Generalized helplessness, no mechanism for self-protection, no self-care, emotional and mental paralysis, giving up.
The children in the first group have serious behavior problems, as they are easily triggered and overreact to adult demands, to any change in plans, to anything they perceive as leading to a lack of control, losing face, to any “dissing” by a peer. They may invite danger with risky behaviors, provoke adults to punish and abuse them, get stimulated by repeating their abuse at the expense of others. I will continue with my Dr. Sauzier and my thoughts about child sexual abuse in the next posting.