Personality Characteristics of Sexually Abused Children
Child sexual assault is a wide spread problem in today's society that presents a severe risk to the victim's mental health, both during childhood and into adulthood. For many sexually abused children, the effects continue long after the abuse has ended.
Sexually abused children have been proven to develop a variety of personality characteristics, as the result of experiencing fear, hostility, guilt, shame, depression, low self-esteem, poor self-image, physical and sleep complaints, and sexual behavior disturbances, that will impact how their personalities develop (Lynch, 1978: 111-113).
For millions of children, sexual abuse is a painful reality. Sexually abused children often suffer from shame, humiliation, anger and sadness, which undoubtedly affect their personalities.
According to data obtained by the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, approximately 826,000 children were abused in 1999 (National Clearinghouse, 1999). Of these victims, 58.4% suffered from neglect, 21.3% suffered from physical abuse and 11.3% were sexually abused. (Children between the ages 0-3 were at the highest risk of being sexually abused. The rates of many types of abuse were similar for male and female children, but female children are at higher risk than male children for sexual abuse. United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).
Effects of Sexual Abuse on Personalities of Children
In recent years, researchers have been studying the effects of sexual abuse on the personalities of children (NAMI, 2002). However, it is often difficult for researchers, psychologists and loved ones to determine whether or not sexual abuse has occurred. While sexual intercourse is an obvious form of sexual abuse, there are many other forms of abuse, including kissing, fondling, watching pornographic movies and more, that are just as harmful to children.
Psychologists often rely on the warning signs of sexual abuse to determine if abuse has taken place (NAMI, 2002). While the most obvious warning sign is when a child talks about the abuse, there are several other behavioral traits that trigger concern. These include sexualized behavior, acting-out behaviors (such as tantrums), regressive behaviors (such as baby talk), poor academic performance, and self-mutilating behavior.
There are also several physical and emotional warning signs that a sexually abused child may display. The physical signs include abdominal pain, genital or rectal pain, sexually transmitted diseases and bed-wetting. The emotional signs include depression, anxiety, aggression, withdrawal and low self-esteem.
Many children do not report sexual abuse (NAMI, 2002). Some report it and are told to keep it a secret or are accused of lying. Even if the abuse stops or was only a single occurrence, sexually abused children that are not treated often develop personality traits that lead to sever emotional problems later in life.
According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the following personality traits are commonly developed by sexually abused children: (NAMI, 2002)
Low self-esteem, feelings of self-hatred or shame.
An inability to trust, which can lead to difficulties in establishing relationships.
Attraction to abusive partners.
Anger and hostile manners.
Anxiety or panic.
Dissociative disorders, such as multiple personality disorder.
As most children develop personality traits through modeling, which means learning from their parents, sexually abused children are likely to sexually abuse others later in life (HHS, 2001). Children who learn that sexual abuse often model this style of parenting when they grow up.
Additionally, sexually abused children have a tendency to develop a low sense of self-esteem. These children often do not believe that they are worthy of love and kindness. This leads to personality traits such as low self-esteem and self-consciousness.
According to psychiatrist William P. Wilson, sexually abused children are often ruled by negative emotions (Wilson, 2001). In addition, they are ridden with frustration, shame and guilt. Often the children that experience the most guilt are those that felt any kind of pleasure during the abuse. This guilt makes them blame themselves and it becomes difficult for them to forgive themselves.
Because they were treated sexually like adults, these children lose one of the most important personality traits of childhood -- innocence. As they grow older, their sexual attitudes are very unhealthy. Many are afraid of sex, while others become frigid.
Sexually abused children also tend to be fearful of rejection (Wilson, 2001). They feel that the abuse has tainted them and that they are unworthy of love and acceptance by anyone.
Results of Maladaptive Personality Traits on Sexually Abused Children
The word "personality" involves deeply embedded patterns of behavior, as well as the manner in which individuals perceive, relate to, and think about themselves and their environment (Lynch, 1978). Personality traits are the prominent features of personality. While these traits are really pathological, certain styles of personality traits can result in interpersonal problems.
Personality disorders are rigid, inflexible, and maladaptive behavior patterns of adequate severity to cause major impairment in functioning or internal distress. Personality disorders are long-term and constant styles of behavior and thought, not uncommon episodes. According to Mental Health magazine, "Symptoms (of personality disorders) stem from basic personality traits that develop over a period of time."
The Medical College of Virginia Commonwealth University backs up this idea. The university recently published a study revealing that sexual abuse seems to affect certain personality traits that involve impulsiveness and predict drug abuse in girls (Rostler, 2002). According to the study, which examined the psychological impact of different types of childhood sexual abuse, found that sexually abused girls were three times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders or abuse alcohol and drugs in adulthood, than girls who were not.
All individuals all possess specific personality traits, or characteristics, which often develop in adolescence and are mostly developed by adulthood. However, when they become rigid or unchanging and begin to impact on everyday functioning they can lead to psychiatric symptoms. Individuals with personality disorders often blame other people for their problems, and this is especially true of people with NPD.
The term "psychosocial" implies that personality disorders are a direct result of experiences that individuals have, especially during childhood and adolescence (Lynch, 1978: 16-24). The recently developed object-relations theory particularly emphasizes the influence of the parent-child relationship. According to this theory, any child who experiences sexual abuse is vulnerable to developing an antisocial personality disorder.
The psychodynamic theory emphasizes the importance of internal mental processes in the way in which relationships unfold. Sigmund Freud's work forms the center of psychodynamic thought, arguing that children mentally adapt their instinctive drives to the demands and requirements of their social circumstances. Ultimately, they develop personality traits that often last throughout their lives and influence their relationships with others. Freud's belief was that the dominant human instinctual drive was libidinal or sexual.
When children are sexually bused, several problems arise. These children are likely to experience anger, distrust, and fear commitment. Children who live through such childhood trauma often suffer permanent damage and exhibit behavior patterns that reflect their experiences, such as lying and paranoia (HHS, 2001).
However, these problems do not affect every individual who has experienced childhood trauma. Other individuals develop personality disorders or a personality complexes resembling posttraumatic stress disorder, which involves a severe anxiety reaction toward traumatic events that occur outside the usual series of human experiences.
According to a recent study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, sexually abused children are more than four times as likely than those who were not to develop personality disorders in early adulthood (Johnson, et al., 1999: 607-608).
After controlling factors such as age and sex, temperament, parental education, and presence of parental psychiatric disorders, sexual abuse was associated with elevated personality disorder (PD) symptom levels during early adulthood.
Childhood histories of sexual abuse and the subsequent development of maladaptive personality traits and behavior are often at the core of many clients' problems. These harmful childhood relationships with adults exist on a range of low to high negative impact. Sexual abuse affects personality development, interpersonal relationships and the development of mental problems, personality disorders, psychopathology, and multiple personality disorders.
Personality is partially determined from genetics and partially developed from learned experience (Lynch, 1978: 108-126). Such personality traits as perfectionism, competitiveness, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies often increase vulnerability to the development of an eating disorder. Many people who have experienced sexual abuse develop eating disorders as result of developing these personality traits, which make them strive for perfection.
Sexually abused children feel unsafe and vulnerable in their own bodies. They have a tendency to develop personality traits that help them to feel safety and protection. This can result in the development of an eating disorder, such as compulsive eating, that makes them feel less sexually attractive, and therefore, less vulnerable.
The end result of any of these behaviors is the development of low self-esteem (NAMI, 2002). The nine personality traits associated with low self-esteem are: looking good; acting out; pulling in; entertaining; enabling; troubled person; people pleasing; rescuing; and nonfeeling.
Directly related to these nine personality traits emanating from low self-esteem are seven negative behavioral consequences:…