When victims of childhood sexual abuse grow up: The long-term effects

Nothing can be more traumatic than sexual abuse; more so if encountered as a child. The effects of this trauma linger among victims of childhood sexual abuse as they grow up and stay throughout their adult lives.

An article published in PubMed Central stated that health problems among some adults can be linked to their previous trauma as victims of childhood sexual abuse. These problems range from negative self-image to severe interpersonal problems and psychological disorders. As a result, the victim’s quality of life is severely affected, with some finding difficulty in coping.

Long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse

Feelings of shame and guilt

A lot of survivors blame themselves for being abused because they weren’t strong enough to stop it. They couldn’t shift the blame toward their abuser or view them in a negative light because the perpetrator was a trusted adult or an esteemed figure in their lives. This self-blame can lead to destructive behaviors like substance abuse, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.

Low self-esteem

Negative self-image issues also plague a majority of childhood sexual abuse survivors. These issues with self-esteem lead to a sense of inferiority and overall low self-efficacy. This could be a result of having their safety and boundaries violated at such a young age, negative remarks made by the attacker during the abuse, or a combination of both.


One of the most common defense mechanisms of those who have experienced childhood trauma is dissociation. Victims often feel disconnected from their trauma and the abuse they’ve gone through.

Dissociation could cause one or more of the following:

  • Confusion
  • Nightmares
  • Disorientation
  • Flashbacks
  • Difficulty experiencing emotions

According to medical experts, some victims repress the memories of abuse entirely or of some parts of their childhood. It can also cause victims to negate the effects and impact of their trauma by believing that forgetting about the abuse is their best course of action.

Psychological issues caused by childhood sexual abuse


Much of the trauma from abuse is internalized by the survivors. Since they harbor negative feelings about themselves, it’s easy for them to fall into depression. They think they’re worthless and offer nothing to others as they don’t deem themselves fit to share anything useful.

Eating disorders

Research shows that women who develop eating disorders were more likely abused as a child. Disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating develop because of a victim’s need for control.

Since trauma causes a warped body image perception, controlling the way they eat makes victims feel like they have more power over themselves. These actions provide a short-term reprieve from their trauma but are definitely not healthy long-term solutions. Eating disorders cause more emotional and mental distress and long-lasting physical harm, as well.

Panic attacks

Panic attacks are characterized by an abrupt, overwhelming feeling of fear and anxiety. It happens even when there’s no danger present and can be triggered by high-stress situations. Some telltale signs of a panic attack are:

  • Elevated heartbeat
  • Numbness
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Dizziness or disorientation
  • Sweating
  • Nausea

Sleep disorders

Victims experience sleeping problems – either they’re sleeping too much or too little. Insomnia, sleep terrors, and nightmares are also considered sleep disorders. These unusual sleeping patterns and occurrences can also be signs of depression and past trauma.

Effects of childhood sexual abuse on relationships

As a result of their trauma, childhood sexual abuse survivors may experience problems in creating and maintaining relationships with other people, especially in the following areas:


Most adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse find it difficult to experience or engage in intimacy. This is because most victims’ first time experiencing sex was the result of sexual abuse. Some struggle with engaging in any sexual activity or setting appropriate boundaries.


Trusting others becomes especially difficult for those who were abused by someone close to them. Survivors often find it hard to be vulnerable and to trust others, making it more difficult to connect with their peers.

Coping with the long-term effects of abuse

Survivors need to remember that everyone handles trauma and abuse differently. Some may recover slower than others but it doesn’t make their struggle any less valid.

The important thing about living with trauma is to get the right help. Search for therapists or counselors who specialize in childhood sexual abuse. Also, find a support system that can help you like friends, family, or a survivors’ group.

Take action

Have you or someone you know experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault? It’s never too late to seek justice. In California, victims can file a civil lawsuit until they’re 40 years old or up to five years after the discovery of abuse.

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