Your childhood years are when your brain is growing and developing the most. This is why from a young age, parents instill basic life lessons and ideologies into their children. It will ultimately affect the way their brain functions in the future.
1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experienced sexual assault or abuse at the hands of an adult. 73% of children that experience sexual abuse do not tell anyone of the event for at least a year, and 45% do not tell anyone for at least 5 years, and of course, some do not make this information known to anyone ever.
With this staggering information at hand, one has to wonder, if a child experiences such a traumatic event during their formative years, what effect does it have on the brain? Well, sexual abuse is not just a traumatic memory for a child but an event that carries serious repercussions altering their brain structure and creating long-lasting effects.
Structural alterations to the brain
Childhood sexual abuse alters the fundamental structure of an individual’s brain and can potentially create psychological and emotional problems in their adult lives. Relating to the structural map of the brain, childhood sexual abuse can cause a decrease in the hippocampus, which is essential for learning and memory. A decrease in volume of the prefrontal cortex, this part of the brain is directly related to balancing emotions, behavior, and perception. Increased activity in the amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotions and deciding the response to possibly dangerous or stressful situations. Decreased size of the cerebellum correlates to motor skills and coordination. These alterations to the brain’s structure listed are only to name a few. There are many more structural alterations that could occur.
Behavioral and chemical changes
In addition to changing the natural structure of a child’s brain, sexual abuse also alters the chemical tasks the brain is supposed to perform. This has an effect on a child’s emotions and behavior. Some examples of this may look like being continuously alert and unable to relax, finding it difficult to navigate social settings, depression, anxiety, feeling scared all the time, etc. During sexual abuse, a child’s mind is acting in survival mode. After the event has occurred, a child’s mind may begin to act in this manner normally, seeing the world as a dangerous place even if there is no real threat.
Childhood sexual abuse after altering the brain in structural and chemical functions has an impact on a child’s later adult life. They may struggle with establishing relationships, depression, PTSD, anxiety, and handling emotion. Sexual abuse can do just as much physical damage to an individual as it can emotionally.
Why does all this matter?
The point I am trying to make is, child sexual abuse is so much more than a perverse adult looking to use an innocent child’s body to fulfill their sexual desires, but an event that can alter the fundamental structure of a child’s brain during their most vulnerable years. The issue I would like to highlight and bring awareness to is the lack of adequately assessing a child’s brain after sexual abuse and chalking it up to emotional turmoil.
Many are quick to judge and prescribe a therapist to a child demonstrating behavioral problems after sexual abuse without fully realizing that the changes they are going through while, of course, can be emotional to some degree nay not be the entirety of it. While therapists are a good resource for children to use to work through their abuse and dissect their behavior, we need to be held more accountable for analyzing how a child’s brain structure could have been altered, causing them to demonstrate certain behaviors.
We need to take action
We need to stop calling sexual abuse victims “over-emotional” in certain instances or assume they are overreacting. What we may not realize, and they might not even realize it themselves is, the control they have over the way they are functioning or demonstrating their behavior may be beyond their control. It could very well be due to the way their brain structure has been altered.
We need to start the conversation around holding ourselves and the medical community responsible for bringing awareness to the scientific side of sexual abuse, changing the common response to prescribing a therapist, and delving deeper into the altered psyche of a young child’s mind.