The consequences of sexual abuse in childhood

The consequences of sexual abuse in childhood

Last update: 13 May, 2018

Pedophilia is a term we hear more and more. Although authorities know about it, as members of society we cannot forget the consequences of sexual abuse for children. These crimes can occur anywhere and to any social class without regard to educational level, race or religion.

Child sexual abuse is not a new phenomenon. It is not possible to determine when it began to appear, but it is probable that it existed from the very origins of humanity.

“The human race tends to remember the abuses to which it has been subjected rather than the endearments. What’s left of kisses? Wounds, however, leave scars.”

-Bertolt Brecht-

All cultures have ancient myths and legends that try to outlaw incest, that is, sexual relationships between blood relatives. As for relationships between parents and children – especially fathers and daughters – different societies seem to have been a little more permissive.

image of sexual abuse

It is known that fathers and stepfathers make up the highest percentage of perpetrators of sexual abuse of minors, and that the main victims are their daughters or stepdaughters.

However, there are also many cases in which the rapist is another close relative; between 80% and 95% of sexual abuse of children occurs within the family. Boys are also victims, although in a smaller reported proportion.

Development of children

One of Sigmund Freud’s most important and, at the same time, most controversial, discoveries was the verification that human beings have sexual impulses from the moment of birth. Psychoanalysis revealed that children have fantasies, desires and sexual expressions.

Child sexuality is very different from adult sexuality. This is obvious, given their physical, emotional and intellectual immaturity.

The child basically discovers their own body and first pleasurable sensations with certain stimuli. However, there is something more important that the child must discover: family norms.

girl covering face

In order to develop, the child must understand that it is illegal to have a sexual relationship with their mother or father. And, by extension, with other members of their family.

Following this rule is one way a child learns law and culture. They learn to give up impossible desires and obtain the ability to recognize and respect limits.

If the child does not know that this is wrong, they will begin to perceive the world as a chaos in which it is very difficult to find meaning. They will also feel guilty and ashamed, even if they do not know exactly why.

It is important to make it clear that sexual abuse of children takes place when there is sexual contact, with or without consent, between an adult and a minor. Also it is when two children have sexual contact when they have more than three years difference between them.


The consequences of sexual abuse

The consequences of sexual abuse of children varies from case to case. It depends on many factors:

  • The child’s age when the it occurred.
  • Who the aggressor is (it is always more serious when abuse takes place by a father or mother).
  • The characteristics of the situation (degree of intimidation, violence and/or seduction).
  • The duration of the abuse.
  • The psychological characteristics of the victim.
  • The way the situation was “solved”.

In almost all cases, there are both short-term and long-term consequences.


Short term consequences

In the short term, the most likely consequences of sexual abuse are regressions to a previous age: maybe they start sucking their thumb again, or lose their toilet training, for example.

It is also common that the child becomes anxious and depressed. Very often their school performance drops and they may become isolated or sullen. Also, they can become seductive, sexually precocious or develop addictions and suicidal behaviors.

two people

Long term consequences

Long-term effects depend on the severity of the abuse and therapeutic support the child or adult receives.

They most likely will have problems sleeping or frequent nightmares, as well as a tendency to have depression and low self-esteem.

Sexual abuse of children takes place when there is sexual contact, with or without consent, between an adult and a minor.

They will experience the greatest difficulties in their relationships and sexual life. Sexual phobias or an incomprehensible tendency to get into highly unsatisfactory relationships may appear.

In the most serious cases, the consequences of sexual abuse include a strong possibility of developing schizophrenia, to attempt suicide or to develop highly dangerous promiscuous behaviors.

Anyone who has been a victim of sexual abuse in childhood must always be treated by a therapist, psychologist or psychoanalyst to reduce the consequences of these events. The sooner, the better.

Image courtesy of Beatriz Vidal, Kelly Vivanco


All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Beitchman, JH, Zucker, KJ, Hood, JE, DaCosta, GA, Akman, D., y Cassavia, E. (1992). Una revisión de los efectos a largo plazo del abuso sexual infantil. Abuso y abandono de niños , 16 (1), 101–118.
  • Edwards, V. J., Holden, G. W., Felitti, V. J., & Anda, R. F. (2003). Relationship between multiple forms of childhood maltreatment and adult mental health in community respondents: Results from the adverse childhood experiences study. American Journal of Psychiatry160(8), 1453–1460.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.