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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 5, No. 2
June 2000

The Effects of Sexual Abuse

Volumes have been written on the topic of sexual abuse, analyzing it from every angle. When one reads what has been written, perhaps the most striking thing about it is the power to disrupt lives: a single abusive act disrupts not just the life of a child, but dozens of lives. If we are to reduce and repair the damage done by sexual abuse, we must truly understand how sexual abuse effects children and birth, foster, and adoptive families.

The Survivor

The impact of sexual abuse on children can be devastating and long-lasting. Because children are victimized by someone they should be able to trust and depend on, they may not realize that the abuse is wrong and not their fault. According to Faulkner (1996), sexually-abused children report feeling that something is wrong with them, that the abuse is their own fault, and that they should blame themselves for the abuse. Many children encounter disbelief or dismissal of their claims because adults do not wish to acknowledge that abuse is occurring. Consequently, victims may feel inadequate, embarrassed, isolated, guilty, shameful, and powerless (Faulkner, 1996). For these reasons, many people suppress what they perceive as a shameful secret until later in life.

Even after much time has passed, the effects of sexual abuse are powerful. Finkelhor and Browne (1986) found the long-term effects of maltreatment to include poor self-esteem, difficulty trusting others, anxiety, feelings of isolation and stigma, depression, self-destructive tendencies, sexual maladjustment, and substance abuse.

In 1998, Hughes and colleagues published the results of a study of 18 adult women who reported sexual abuse prior to age 12. These women revealed that they suffered from low rates of secondary school completion, long-term mistrust of others, illness, depression, dissociation, sleep problems, self-injury and self-mutilation, eating disorders, agoraphobia, and painful memories (Hughes, et al., 1998). These findings affirm what other researchers have found: a clear link between a history of child sexual abuse and higher rates in adult life of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and post traumatic stress disorder (Mullen & Fleming, 1998).

The negative effects of incest, the most common form of sexual abuse, can be compounded by the reactions of parents, siblings, and other important people in the child's life. For example, siblings of the survivor may blame the abused child, not the abuser, either because they believe the perpetrator's denials or simply because of what reporting the abuser has done to the family. And when a child wonders if her mother knew about the abuse but did nothing to stop it, she can lose trust in both parents, not just one (Sheinberg & Fraenkel, 1998).

The Survivor's Family

When a child is reported to have been sexually abused by a family member, the whole family is affected. Often family members feel they must choose whom to side with and whom to blame. Meanwhile the family is flooded with shame and invaded by police and social workers.

While this is necessary for the safety of children, social workers must do what they can to support the bonds among all family members, particularly between siblings an between a nonoffending parent and the children.

This can be a challenge. Societal norms and expectations about the responsibility mothers bear for what happens inside their homes influence us tremendously. The degree to which our cultural values may lead us to blame nonoffending mothers "is exemplified" by the findings of Dietz and Craft (1980), who reported that most social workers believed that mothers are as responsible for the sexual abuse as the offender, despite the fact that 78 percent of the mothers in their study were being physically abused by the same offender who abused the child" (Massat & Lundy, 1998).

Yet emerging research indicates that we need to support mothers more, if only for the children's sake (Corcoran, 1998). Some research has shown that a child's ability to recover from sexual abuse may be influenced by the support she receives from the nonoffending parent. Adams-Tucker (1982) and others suggest that a parent's failure to believe and support a child who reports abuse may compound a child's feelings of betrayal and isolation. Conversely, evidence is growing that maternal support is critical for a child's recovery for both the short and long term (Corcoran, 1998).

Nonoffending parents need support. Often they are in a state of shock, because their child has been sexually abused, and strained by their efforts to decide whether to report the abuse.

And as soon as they make it known what their spouses or significant others have done, the relationship between these mothers and the rest of the world changes. In their 1998 article, Massat and Lundy explored the "costs" of reporting sexual abuse for 104 nonoffending parents. They found these parents faced many issues as a direct result of reporting incest, including problems with family members (54%), a decline in income (55%), difficulty with their job (26%) or having to find a new job (26%), and having to find a new place to live (50%).

These mothers may lack the emotional resources and support systems needed to deal with these challenges. Indeed, to protect the child's privacy, mothers may decide not to rely on the support networks they do have, let alone reach out to establish new ones (Corcoran, 1998). All of this underscores the importance of understanding each family's needs and connecting them to formal and informal supports and concrete services whenever possible.

The Offender

The fathers, uncles, and other family members who sexually abuse children are affected by the abuse, too. Most of them live double lives: one as an upstanding family man, one as an obsessed, self-loathing sex offender.

Regardless of how we feel about them, incest perpetrators are still very important to the families they have betrayed. In psychological terms they are still "central attachments" for the family. As such, the family is certain to have contradictory, confused feelings about these men.

To help children and their families heal and prevent future maltreatment, it is important that social workers try to ensure that offenders receive treatment from experienced, trained therapists.

An important part of many treatment programs for sexual offenders are "apology sessions." In this phase of treatment the offender writes a letter to his victim and then, in the presence of the therapist, the child, and the rest of the family he reads it aloud, assuring the child that the abuse was entirely his fault and that he is sorry for what he has done (Wylie, 1998). This clarification from the person who has harmed them can be helpful to children struggling to come to terms with sexual abuse and the relationships it has damaged.

Foster & Adoptive Parents

Foster and adoptive parents are also affected when a child is sexually abused. Down the line they must care for children in emotional turmoil because of the abuse and the disruption of their families. To do this effectively, parents must learn everything they can about the short and long term effects of sexual abuse.

A particular challenge for many families is learning how to cope with children's sexualized language and behavior. Parenting children who have been sexually abused requires knowledge about setting boundaries (e.g., about touching) and special understanding when it comes to certain behaviors, such as a child's need to masturbate.

To succeed in establishing a solid foundation with a child who has been sexually abused, foster and adoptive parents must help the child reconcile her past and present lives. As Fahlberg (1991) explains, "The success of a new relationship isn't dependent upon the memory of an earlier one fading; rather, the new one is likely to prosper when the two relationships are kept clear and distinct." Helping a child build a life book is one way for foster and adoptive parents to help a child make sense of her past.

Therefore foster and adoptive parents must support birth parent-child ties. To make this possible, they may want to adopt the policy of Brenda Crider, a North Carolina foster parent. "I never run parents down to their kids," she says. "When these kids know you accept their parents, regardless of what they've done, the kids are easier to deal with. This makes sense. Kids are looking for approval, and if you disapprove of their parents then they think you disapprove of them, too" (Crider, 1998).


Corcoran, J. (1998). In defense of mothers of sexual abuse victims. Families in Society, 79(4), 358-369.

Crider, B. (1998). Working with birth parents. Fostering Perspectives, 3(2), 16.

Fahlberg, V. I. (1991). A child's journey through placement. Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press.

Faulkner, N. (1996). Pandora's box: The secrecy of child sexual abuse. Sexual Counseling Digest, pp. 1-3.

Finkelhor, D. & Browne, A. (1986). Impact of child sexual abuse: a review of the research. Psychological Bulletin, 99, 66-77.

Hughes, K., Stephen, H., Difranco, A., Manning, L., van der Toorn, N., North, C., & Taylor, M. (1998). The health impacts on adult women of childhood sexual violence before the age of twelve years. Ipswich Sexual Assault Service: Ipswich, Queensland, Australia.

Massat, C. R. & Lundy, M. (1998). "Reporting costs" to nonoffending parents in cases of intrafamilial child sexual abuse. Child Welfare, 78(4), 371-388.

Mullen, P. & Fleming, J. (1998). Long-term effects of child sexual abuse. Issues in child abuse prevention (9). Australia: National Child Protection Clearing House.

Osmond, M., Durham, D., Leggett, A., & Keating, J. (1998). Treating the aftermath of sexual abuse: A handbook for working with children in care. Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America.

Sheinberg, M. & Fraenkel, P. (1998). Loyalty divided: Ambivalence haunts the victims of sexual abuse. Family Therapy Networker, 23(3), 63-78.

Wylie, M. S. (1998). Secret lives. Family Networker, 22(6), 39-59.

2000 Jordan Institute for Families