The short- and long-term impacts of child sexual abuse

In recent months, there has been a lot of celebrity activity raising awareness of sexual abuse and sexual violence. Online campaigns such as the #MeToo trend have turned into a global phenomenon, and many celebrities and public figures alike have spoken up about sexual abuse, to raise awareness of the issue in the hope of preventing future incidents. It’s important to remember, though, that sexual abuse doesn’t only happen in celebrity culture. Rather, it is an enormous issue that many thousands of individuals face every day, right here in the UK. Worryingly, a large number of these individuals are children.

According to the NSPCC, 1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused. This is an astonishing number when we take into consideration the fact there are over 11 million children living in the UK today. Sexual abuse and sexual violence are huge safeguarding concerns, and the impact this abuse has on young people is often devastating.

There is a staggering list of side-effects that victims of sexual abuse and sexual violence are likely to experience. Some of the short-term impacts can include severe pain and/or the need to seek urgent medical help, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and unusual bodily changes. None of these side-effects are comfortable for any individual to experience, but for children in particular—especially those who aren’t able to understand what is happening to their bodies—the psychological impact can be an incredible weight on their shoulders. The trauma of being a victim of sexual abuse, for some, doesn’t end even when their abuser leaves; many side-effects last for a very long time after. The psychological impact of sexual abuse is often much more enduring than the physical pain. For many victims of child sexual abuse, psychological side-effects last long into adulthood.

It is important to remember that every victim of child sexual abuse will cope with their abuse in different ways. It is never an easy experience to come to terms with the abuse that has been inflicted on an individual, but some victims will have learned more effective coping strategies than others, or may not have experienced the same extent of abuse as those who are finding it extremely difficult to cope. Indeed, many victims find it difficult to talk about their problems, or may not have access to an adult who they trust enough to listen to them, whereas others may know straight away who to talk to for help. Individual experiences should always be respected. No victim is any less of a victim for seeming to have coped well with moving on from their abuse; similarly, no victim is any less strong for having debilitating physical or psychological effects years after their abuse has taken place.

All of our online safeguarding training courses make a clear point of advising learners to respect the individual’s thoughts and feelings when a disclosure is being made, and to offer the victim non-judgemental, attentive support.

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What are the long-term effects of child sexual abuse?

There are many long-term effects of child sexual abuse, but by far, some of the most worrying effects include the long-term psychological damage it can cause.

It is not uncommon for incidences of child sexual abuse to confuse children about the meaning of healthy relationships. This lack of knowledge about how to interact with romantic partners can cause a catastrophic impact on their development of future relationships. Victims of long-term child sexual abuse may not understand that sex and relationships can be a positive element of growing up and adulthood, and this lack of understanding or general disinterest in forming healthy romantic relationships can lead to feelings of being ‘the odd one out’, or might make the victim feel ‘unusual’ for not having the same emotions as their peers.

These confused emotions can lead to other psychological effects. Many victims of child sexual abuse suffer from depression and anxiety, and many other mental health issues, including low self-esteem, lack of confidence, eating disorders, obsessive behaviours, and aggression. To deal with these problems, victims may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-harm, excessive alcohol consumption, and taking drugs. Suicide is not ruled-out as a long-term effect of child sexual abuse.

Under some circumstances, pregnancy can be a long-term effect; if the victim is very young when they are abused and they give birth to a child, this can lead to a variety of socio-economic impacts. Scarring, disfigurement, and incurable sexually transmitted diseases as a result of the abuse can also have a negative effect on a victim’s future.

Who is most likely to sexually abuse a child?

There is no one profile of a child sexual abuser. In 90 per cent of recorded child sexual abuse cases, though, the victim was abused by somebody they knew. In more than 30 per cent of recorded cases, the abuser was another child.

How can I tell if a child is being sexually abused?

There are many tell-tale signs and indicators of child sexual abuse. Some of the more immediate noticeable effects include a child expressing anxiety, a reluctance to be around the person who is abusing them, nervous behaviours such as bed-wetting, soiling clothes, and having trouble sleeping. A child who acts suddenly withdrawn, or who begins to act differently, may also be displaying signs that they have been sexually abused.

The only way to arm yourself with the knowledge required to spot a sexually-abused child is to learn more about the topic through certifiable child protection training. Our online safeguarding training courses are suitable for individuals, schools, and organisations in a variety of sectors, and our wide range of safeguarding courses explore different elements of child protection training.

Our bestselling Introduction to Child Protection online training course gives a fantastic overview of child protection, teaching the many signs and indicators of child abuse and neglect, as well as how to report and handle concerns or allegations. All of our courses are updated regularly to meet the requirements of current safeguarding legislation and child protection guidance, so when you choose to train with us, you choose to train with a dedicated team of safeguarding experts who really care about raising awareness.

If you work in a role—whether paid or as a volunteer—where you come into contact with children regularly, especially if your role requires you to work with unsupervised children, you have a requirement to hold an up-to-date safeguarding training certificate. Schools staff, Early Years settings, and Childminders should pay particularly close attention to this requirement, as Ofsted, Estyn, and the ISI will want to see evidence of your safeguarding training during your next inspection.

If you’d like to learn more about child abuse and how you can be the most effective in helping a child in need, please click here to browse our list of online safeguarding courses. Once you’ve purchased a course with us, you get immediate access to our online learning system, where you can pause and restart your learning as many times as you need to (perfect for busy schedules!), and you can retake the final assessment as many times as it takes to pass the course. Upon successful completion of the course, you can download and print a personalised safeguarding training certificate to keep on record. Our ethos is to build a strong understanding of child protection training in our clients, which is why everyone who takes our safeguarding training has access to the whole course content and additional resources for the duration of their certification.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, it is important to raise the alarm as soon as possible in order to receive the help you and others might require. The NSPCC has a 24-hour helpline dedicated to anyone who wants to report, discuss, or seek advice and help. Please call 0808 800 5000 to speak with an NSPCC counsellor.