How to Support Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)
Recent decades have paved the way for the improvement in our understanding and prevention of child abuse globally.
The World Health Organisation Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention have formulated the definition of child sexual abuse, now formally recognised as “the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he/she cannot fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent; or that violates the laws or social taboos of society.”
Thus, child sexual abuse is evidenced by an activity between a child and an adult (or a child and another child), who is in a position of responsibility, trust or power – with the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. This may include, but is not limited to:
- The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity.
- The exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices.
- The exploitative use of children in pornographic performance and materials.
Whilst the internet is becoming a rapidly expanding source of online grooming and child sexual exploitation, literature poignantly reminds us that intra-familial abuse accounts for approximately one-third of all child sexual abuse cases.
Specific features that characterise child sexual abuse include:
- The perpetrator being typically a known and trusted caregiver.
- Physical force/violence is very rarely used; rather the perpetrator tries to manipulate the child’s trust and hide the abuse.
- Child sexual abuse often occurs over many weeks or even years.
- The sexual abuse of children frequently occurs as repeated episodes that becomes more invasive with time. Perpetrators may engage the child in a gradual process of sexualising the relationship over time – i.e. grooming.
There are also various risk factors for child victimisation:
- Unaccompanied children
- Children in foster care, adopted children, or step-children
- Physically or mentally handicapped children
- History of past abuse
- Psychological or cognitive vulnerabilities
- Single parent homes / broken homes
- Social isolation / lacking an emotional support networks
- Parents with mental illness, alcohol, or drug dependency.
Helping Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
Whilst the nature and extent of the impact of abuse can vary significantly between individuals, there is a significantly increased risk of adverse outcomes later in life linked to childhood victimisation including physical, emotional and mental wellbeing, relationships, socioeconomic outcomes and vulnerability to re-victimisation.
Trauma Echoes are also known as triggers, and increasing your awareness of your individual unique triggers can help to cope with the emotional and long-term distress of the abuse.
Tracking your trauma echoes through a process called “journaling” which can help the individual to identify patterns, and techniques used to decrease their impact on your well-being, leaving them better equipped to deal with them when they resurface.
Survivors find the following strategies helpful in mitigating the impact of Trauma Echoes:
- Breathe deeply, look around and remind yourself that you are in a safe place. Recite it out loud for as long as is needed until your breathing slows and you feel safer.
- Use night lights throughout your living space to illuminate dark spaces such as the entryway, bedrooms, closets, hallways, etc.
- Know that it’s ok to create a structure, routine, and boundaries that makes you feel safe and secure. Going into unknown situations can be scary and may inadvertently expose you to experiences/scenarios you want to avoid.
- Build a good, positive relationship with someone who can be a support for you to call, text, or message when you’re feeling unsafe or having anxiety. If that person is not available, develop a self-care plan of things you can do – such as reading positive affirmations, taking a warm bath, listening to music, taking a walk – until you’re able to get the physical or emotional support needed.
- Move your body through exercise or stretching. Running, cycling, swimming, yoga, or stretching can be grounding for the body and mind.
- Create art such as poetry, sculpture, or drawing to help express the feelings you are having.
- Meditate, pray, or listen to guided imagery to help relax your muscles and refocus your energy on something positive and healing.