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Somerset Phoenix Project

Working alongside professionals and supporting children, young people and families affected by sexual abuse.

A specialist service supporting the development of professionals in Somerset. We are here to reduce the negative impact of child sexual abuse (CSA) on the lives of children and families living in Somerset

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How does sexual abuse affect children/Young people

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Trauma and the Brain

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’.


How Does Sexual Abuse Affect Children / Young People?

Being sexually abused can and does traumatise children and as a result they may show some of these signs:

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.

  • Fears / phobias, e.g. dark places or certain smells, sounds and places
  • Guilt / shame
  • Self-blame
  • Denial
  • Lack of self-respect
  • Confusion
  • Insecurity
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Helplessness
  • Mistrust
  • Self-loathing
  • Loss of confidence and self-esteem
  • Personality change, e.g. from happy and outgoing to anxious or angry or withdrawn
  • Aggression, tantrums or bullying
  • Soiling / wetting
  • Sexually inappropriate behaviour or play
  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Withdrawal / isolating themselves 
  • Keeping themselves distant from men / males, even those they have known all their lives
  • Compulsive behaviours
  • Immature behaviours for their age
  • Controlling behaviours
  • Lying / denying doing things , even if you have witnessed it
  • Clingy
  • Using old comforters
  • Become a perfectionist
  • Acting as if they ‘don’t care’
  • Sucking / chewing their clothing, e.g. collars and cuffs
  • Dissociation – zoning out or ‘mental flight’
  • Self-harm
  • Attention seeking
  • Telling everyone their story of the abuse
  • Drug / alcohol use
  • Panic attacks / hyperventilating
  • Not wanting to wear certain items of clothing, e.g. underwear / something tight round the crotch
  • Thoughts of death and dying
  • Tiredness and exhaustion
  • Hyperactivity
  • Diarrhoea / constipation
  • Ache and pains – stomach aches / headaches / muscle tension
  • Constant colds
  • Asthma / eczema may get worse
  • Dizzy spells
  • Eating problems: eating more or less than before
  • Flashbacks
  • Unusual memory loss / poor memory
  • Not wanting to go to bed
  • Insomnia
  • Bed wetting
  • Nightmares or night-terrors
  • Not want to go to school
  • Truancy
  • Difficulties concentrating and learning
  • Overachieving or underachieving

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