Being sexually abused can and does traumatise children and as a result they may show some of these signs:
Some children may feel upset or confused about their change in behaviour, especially if it’s a change for them, e.g. a calm / happy child who is now presenting as angry and aggressive.
It may be that your child does not want to be hugged or kissed by you or other relatives/friends. This does not reflect on how much they love you or their other relatives. Encouraging choice and allowing children to say ‘no’ to physical contact if they don’t want it can be very empowering.
It also may be that you are not sure if you can still hug/kiss your after they have experienced sexual abuse. In both cases, asking ‘do you want a hug’ or ‘can I give you a cuddle’ and accepting both ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as an answer can be a way to show your child you love them and want to be affectionate towards them but are being respectful of their body boundaries.
The brain reacts to ‘toxic stress’ that they have suffered. It can sometimes be called a ‘threat’ response or a ‘panic alarm’ response. The body has gone into survival mode.
Although upsetting, challenging, frustrating, worrying and possibly overwhelming for the adults around them, these reactions are natural and normal safety mechanisms the body uses as the brain manages the trauma they have experienced. This is the reason they may appear to be playing up or behaving badly; there is an unconscious reason for them reacting to adults in this way.
The problem for traumatised children is that when they are safe and the abuse is over, the trauma does not ‘turn off’, the child stays continuously in survival mode. This means that normal every-day things such as certain events, sounds, smells, sights, places, people and sensations signal danger to their brain which can lead them to become emotionally overwhelmed and have a ‘melt down’.
It may also mean that they appear fine one moment and the next they have an emotional or behaviour outburst, e.g. they suddenly become angry / aggressive / crying etc. with no apparent trigger.
They may also be displaying behaviours that would seem more appropriate for a much younger child, e.g. a 10 year old throwing a tantrum like a 2 year old. They are simply trying to stay alive in a world that their brain is telling them is dangerous.
While they are stuck in survival mode they will find it very difficult to manage their emotions or behaviour, concentrate, think, explain things in words or learn because the part of the brain responsible for these functions is not working properly because of the trauma.
Barnardo's is a charity (216250 / SC037605) and a company limited by guarantee.
(61625 England - see the governing document). Registered office: Tanners Lane, Barkingside, Ilford, Essex IG6 1QG | VAT number 507477337
© 2019 Copyright, Barnardo's