It’s a daily occurrence on the news these days – another sexual abuse case. But what of the victims?

Photo ©iStockphoto/enieni

Photo ©iStockphoto/enieni


We know that kids can be resilient, but what other factors influence the harm caused? What do we know about the impact of sexual abuse on the children themselves?

What makes the bad even worse?


Researchers call them moderator variables – the things that can influence how something is experienced by the victim. In the case of abuse, the moderator variables are those aspects of the perpetrator, the victim or the kind of abuse that can effect the impact?
CAVEAT: Every victim is different. The combination of victim and perpetrator is also unique…
But there are some general things that can be said about what effects the degree of harm caused.

  • Relationship to the offender – where there is a subjectively important relationship between the child and the abuser, these children tend to fair worse in their adjustment following the abuse. Trauma is more likely to be acute where the abuse involves a violation of the trust between child and abuser. None of the evidence indicates more traumatic outcomes from being abused by strangers.
  • Sexual acts involved – penetration has consistently been associated with more trauma than other types of abuse. This applies to adolescent and adult victims, as well as to children.
  • Duration & frequency of abuse – children abused over a prolonged period are more likely to show problems in adjustment than those subject to one-off episodic abuse or those suffering shorter term abusive histories. This also relates to the frequency of abuse.
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  • Degree of force used – this makes surprisingly little difference in the amount of trauma suffered by child victims. Increased force and perceived negative impact are related in adult victims.
  • Victim age – very young children (under 6) are less affected than older ones. Though there is little difference in the amount of negative impact for children abused during the 6 to 16 age range.
  • Offender age – the greater the difference in age between the offender and the victim, the greater the negative impact of the abuse. This also applies to adult victims.

How does this help us?…

Good question.
Notwithstanding the vagaries of statistical research, it’s helpful to know the kinds of things that (generally) may indicate a greater or lesser degree of harm.
This shouldn’t limit our disclosure expectations from children and young people who are victims. Neither should it give us permission to see problems where there may not be any.
But it does mean we enter the fray with useful knowledge that can help prepare us for what may come out. It can also help us to give young people permission to share their experiences through the use of intelligent questioning…

Final thought…

Every child is different. Results from broad research studies can help with general principles but may well not apply to individuals.

In all our dealings with abused young people, we need to continue to deal with the child in front of us, centring or practice around their specific needs.

  • What does your experience tell you about what impacts degree of harm victims suffer?
  • How can we use such knowledge in the therapeutic context?

Please add your views in the comments section below, or by clicking here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

Source article for the above material:

Hanson, R.K. (1990) “The Psychological Impact of Sexual Assault on Women & Children: A Review  Annals of Sex Research, 3, 187-232 (an old study, but still brilliant!)