How to Know If You Were Sexually Abused as a Child

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Childhood sexual abuse is one of the most stigmatized issues in society. The prevalence of this problem can be difficult to accurately measure since it is often underreported. Acknowledging a personal history of abuse takes enormous courage. Nonetheless, this first step is necessary in order to begin the journey towards healing. With enough time, the right tools, and proper support, it is possible to move forward in a healthy way beyond the trauma of childhood abuse.

Childhood Abuse Statistics

The American Psychological Association shares telling statistics on the risk factors for abuse. Although victims are never to blame, some situations are associated with a higher likelihood of abuse taking place.

  • Parents or caregivers who witnessed violence as children, or who struggle with substance abuse currently, may end up perpetuating a cycle of abuse.
  • Single-parent homes, or families living in poverty with limited social supports, may be more vulnerable to sexual predators.
  • Infants and toddlers are at higher risk of maltreatment, while children between ages seven and thirteen are at the highest risk of childhood sexual abuse.

People from all walks of life are potential victims of abuse. Any time a predator sees an open opportunity, there is a risk of abuse occurring. With sexual, verbal, or physical abuse, the perpetrators often exhibit a pattern of behavior called grooming. This is a strategy of "mixing positive behaviors with elements of abuse." Grooming intends to desensitize victims to the natural defenses against abusive behavior. Feelings of shame, secrecy, guilt, and confusion associated with abuse can make it difficult for victims to recognize the behavior while it's happening.

Effects of Abuse

Mentally blocking out memories of past trauma is a psychological defense known as dissociation. Because they are so emotionally painful, recollections of abuse are often buried deep. Difficulty recalling childhood memories may be an indicator of past exposure to trauma. Therapy can help victims develop a better sense of clarity about the things that happened during childhood. If you suspect something may have happened to you as a child but you aren't quite sure, seeking treatment can help you to gain a better understanding.

For adults, the consequences of childhood sexual abuse can manifest in various ways. Abuse in childhood is disproportionately linked to substance abuse, depression, domestic violence, and suicidal thoughts later in life. Sex addiction and sexual anorexia are also more likely in victims of abuse. In some individuals, food addiction and other eating disorders may also be triggered by sexual abuse. Despite these barriers, there is help available to overcome the many challenges that victims face.

Getting Help

If you struggle with dissociation, addiction, unhealthy sexual habits or complicated food issues, therapy can help you identify the underlying causes, including a possible history of abuse. Talking to your doctor about a treatment plan may include a referral to a mental health specialist.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE), is an anonymous way to start getting help right away. By calling in, you can connect with an experienced therapist and engage in a constructive conversation over the phone.

National Sexual Assault Hotline

Call 1-800-656-HOPE to speak with a professional about abuse.

A Word From Verywell

With the right tools and support, recovery from childhood trauma is possible. Sexual abuse at any age is a very confusing and isolating experience. Victims of abuse are not responsible for the actions of their abusers. Everyone deserves to live a life of freedom and recovery after a painful past. As an adult, coming to terms with our personal histories can prompt the pursuit of treatment and help us discover a brighter future for ourselves.

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