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The impact of child sexual abuse on elementary-aged children

Children who have been sexually abused may display a range of emotional and behavioral reactions, many of which are characteristic of children who have experienced other types of trauma. A number of factors influence how a child reacts to a specific traumatic event including:

  • Severity of the trauma
  • Extent of exposure to the event
  • History of or presence of other stressors
  • Multiple episodes of abuse or exposure to violence
  • Proximity to the trauma
  • Preexisting mental health issues
  • Personal significance of the trauma
  • Separation from a caregiver during the trauma
  • Extent of disruption in support systems during and after the trauma
  • Parental mental health issues and parent distress
  • Support available from family members
  • Presence of supportive role models in the child’s life
  • There is a growing body of literature that suggests that genetic factors may influence the strength of an individual’s response to any given traumatic event, producing more extreme responses in some children
  • Although many children who have experienced sexual abuse show behavioral and emotional changes, many others do not.

This aged child may exhibit younger behaviors, like asking adults to feed or dress them, after exposure to trauma. They may also report unexplainable physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches. However, these children also present symptoms that are not typical of younger children. Elementary-aged children have a better understanding of the full meaning of the traumatic event, resulting in feelings of depression, fear, anxiety, emotional “flatness,” anger, or feelings of failure and/or guilt. These feelings are often evident in the child’s behavior, like withdrawal from friends, increased competition for attention, refusal to go to school, aggressive behavior, inability to concentrate and a decrease in school performance. Even though these children understand what occurred more fully than younger children do they are not always able to understand why it happened.

A list of other behaviors that traumatized elementary school-aged children may exhibit include:

  • Sadness and crying
  • School failure
  • Physical complaints
  • Poor concentration and other behaviors that are similar to ADD or ADHD
  • Irritability
  • Regressive behavior
  • Fear of personal harm, or other anxieties and fears (e.g., fear of the dark)
  • Nightmares and/or sleep disruption
  • Bedwetting
  • Eating difficulties
  • Attention seeking behaviors
  • Trauma themes in play/art/conversation

Children can and do recover from sexual abuse.

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