Sexual Abuse and Adolescence

In my last post I described some of the experiences of women I interviewed who had been sexually abused in childhood to explain how their abuse ultimately led to their homelessness.

Many of these women, as children, reacted to their abuse with intense feelings of guilt, shame, depression, and mistrust of adults. Their “spiritual connection” to the universe as a basically safe space had been badly shaken. They lost the conviction that they had the right to a good life. Danger and hurt rather than protection and safety were what they had come to expect. Their capacity to form deep, intimate, and healthy attachments to other people was seriously affected. Often their capacity to plan, see situations clearly, solve problems, and deal constructively with their impulses was weakened. Many, despite obvious expressions of distress, received no help and entered their teen years deeply compromised.

Adolescence for all children represents a sharp turning point in development. Children’s emotional lives and social contexts undergo tectonic and sometimes violent shifts.

Changes in their bodies make it impossible for teenagers to hide the fact that they are now sexual beings. For those who have been sexually abused, this often intensifies their guilt and shame. Instead of feeling virtuous as human beings, they frequently feel indelibly corrupted. They have trouble truly believing that they had not been complicit in their abuse, although they actually had been powerless to resist. They can’t forgive themselves despite the fact that they stood little chance against threats of violence or loss of love, or against their own need to protect a perpetrator to whom they were attached.

So important are love, protection, and safety in the development of a sense of identity that children who haven’t had them can’t really figure out who they are when they reach adolescence. To compensate for this, they may create a “false self” as they try on identities that are not really theirs. They may seem inauthentic and be tough to get to know intimately, which adds to their difficulty in forming healthy attachments. They may engage in behaviors that they don’t feel are truly connected to themselves because their sense of self is so fragile and so fractured. And without a real sense of self, they have little real autonomy. They remain indentured to the effects of their traumatic pasts.

To buttress their sense of self, they frequently try to mimic others, behaving in a chameleon-like manner. They often become very vulnerable to both the power of their own impulses and to the social pressure of their friends. Their judgment becomes less about what is good for them and more about what will calm their painful feelings and be acceptable to their peers. Their ability to navigate the world safely is compromised as a result. They begin to engage in high-risk behaviors that have profound consequences.

These behaviors are intensified by another fact of adolescence. Since these children are now able to shift for themselves without their parents’ logistical help, they can do things that their parents don’t know about. Children who have been abused can act out their distress with very limited intervention by the adult world.

Many of these adolescents use a psychological defense called dissociation that enables them to feel separate and detached from the pain of their actual experience. They first develop this as an immediate response to their abuse in childhood, as it helped them endure what was happening. But as adolescents they often come to use this as a defensive strategy in a variety of other upsetting situations. They detach themselves and float above it all. While useful in reducing inner stress, this has serious consequences for their capacity to test and weigh reality. They fail to recognize the risk in situations and heedlessly act in self-destructive ways.

Sometimes this takes the form of precocious and risky sexual behavior, and girls become pregnant. Sometimes they try to hurt themselves, passively or actively. Not only is this a cry for help, but it is also an attempt to excise, once and for all, the painful emotional residue of their abuse.

Women who had been sexually abused as children have told me that adolescence is when they began to exhibit overt symptoms of distress. Some developed severe headaches and stomach pains. Others began cutting themselves—with razors and knives. Cutting was not just to get attention but to cope with their stress and overcome the numbness created by their dissociation. So adept were these children at separating themselves from their feelings that they usually didn’t experience physical pain from this cutting.

Others turned to food to try to control their lives and moods, some starving themselves, some alternating between binging and purging. The more adults tried to influence their eating patterns, the more these adolescents resisted. They simply couldn’t afford to surrender a device that was so successful in altering their moods, distracting them from their abusive histories, gaining the attention of adults around them, ameliorating their feelings of guilt, and giving them a sense of control over their lives, however illusory. Such little control did they have at the time of the abuse that clutching onto binging, purging, and self-starvation as forms of power became almost irresistible.

Almost all the homeless women I interviewed for my book began using drugs during their teen years. Drugs were hard to resist. I’ll discuss this at greater length in my next post because it is such a common steppingstone on the road to homelessness.