“I was extremely nervous to post this but I know it will help a lot of people, as long as I helped at least one person, it was worth it,” writes Anna Lee Gruenwald in the caption of her gone-viral video. The brave young woman shares her story of survival, claiming she was a victim of sexual abuse and explaining how she cut herself and attempted suicide to deal with the trauma. At the tender age of 7, her mother’s boyfriend would sneak into her room and sexually abuse her. It was all done under the cloak of love. When she turned 10, she had blocked out the memory of the abuse, yet she got really depressed and began cutting herself. By the time she was 12, a classmate had attempted to rape her. She sank deeper into her depression and was sent to hospital many times for self-harm and suicide attempts. It took a lot of therapy and the support of her family for Gruenwald to finally recover. The scariest part is, Gruenwald is not the only child who had to live through this.
Child Sexual Abuse
There are 80,000 reported instances of child sexual abuse per year, but the number of unreported instances is far more worrisome. It is estimated that up to one in three people have had some sexual contact imposed on them by the time they are 18. In most cases, children are afraid to share with anyone what has happened to them. Sexual abuse of a child involves a wide range of actions between a child and an adult or an older child. These could include unsolicited body contact, exposing genitals to a child, forcing a child to strip, or pressuring him/her for sex. The sexual abuser is often someone the child knows and probably trusts; this may include a parent, step-parent, sibling, family friend, neighbor, babysitter, teacher, or, in some cases, stranger.
The Impact of Sexual Abuse on Children
When a child experiences sexual stimulation at an early age, he/she can develop distressing feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Children aged five and older often become trapped between their affection or loyalty for the abuser and the feeling that the sexual activity is wrong. Abusers often use threats of violence against the child or anyone he or she cares about. If the abuser is someone the child loves and respects, they may threaten to withdraw their affection for the child in order to keep him or her quiet. Children might also not talk about what happened to them because they fear the anger or shame of other family members.
If a child is a victim of sexual abuse for a prolonged time, he/she may develop low self-esteem and a distorted view of sex. He/she may feel worthless and may even display suicidal tendencies. When they reach adulthood, children who were sexual abuse victims face many serious problems. They may become child abusers themselves or engage in acts of promiscuity including prostitution.
Signs of Child Sexual Abuse
Although difficult to believe, children can be very good at keeping secrets. In many cases, there is little outward sign that there is anything wrong and the only way to determine if a child has been being sexually abused is through a physical exam by a physician; however, the following signs are usually indicative of sexual abuse:
– Nightmares or sleep problems
– Loss of appetite or trouble swallowing
– Sudden mood swings: rage, anger, fear, or withdrawal from friends or family
– Abnormal interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature
– Refusal to talk about a secret the child has with an adult or older child
– Extreme fear of darkness or unusual aggressiveness
– Engagement in sexual activities with toys or other children
– Knowledge of new words for private body parts and inappropriate sexual knowledge
– Complaints that something is wrong in their genitals
– Statements that their bodies are dirty and need excessive bathing
– Refusal to go to school
– Self-harm or suicidal behavior, especially in adolescents
What to Do When Your Child Has Been Sexually Abused
Because the sexual abuser usually depends on a child’s fear to stop him or her from talking, restoring a child’s sense of safety should be considered every parent’s priority. Once a child feels safe, he or she will start talking freely. A child needs to feel that the abuse wasn’t his or her fault and that everything will be all right again. Adults should teach children that it is fine to talk about the things that frighten them or make them unhappy. They can also teach them when touching is okay and when it isn’t.
Sexual abuse takes away a child’s sense of control over his or her surroundings and can make him or her very distrustful of adults who were supposed to look out for him or her. It’s very important to help the child understand that the abuse was not their fault, that the abuser did something wrong, and that this person needs help to stop hurting others. A thorough medical examination and psychiatric consultation should be sought out. Parents should refrain from expressing their anger at the abuser in front of their children, as the child may subconsciously feel that the anger is directed towards him or her. Children may also feel that they are the reason for making their parents very angry and, in turn, regret speaking.
Self-harm, or self-injury, is when someone deliberately and secretly inflicts physical harm on themselves, without suicidal intentions. There are different forms of self-harm, which include biting, burning, cutting, hitting the body, pulling out hair, and scratching and picking skin.
Why People Harm Themselves
People that resort to harming themselves do so as a way of coping with their problems and dealing with stress. It’s their way of coming to terms with their feelings of sadness, self-loathing, emptiness, frustration, guilt, and rage. In several cases, survivors of sexual abuse use self-harm to deal with difficult or painful feelings.
They feel that the self-inflicted physical pain is a sweet distraction from the turmoil of their lives and relieves their tension and emotional pain. However, this relief doesn’t last very long, and they soon feel the urge to hurt themselves again, with the possibility of the injuries being more serious or even fatal. Self-harm is usually followed by intense feelings of guilt and shame and the powerful return of painful emotions.
People who self-harm try to hide their injuries; however, the secrecy and guilt can worsen their emotional problems. To an outsider, self-harm may seem counterintuitive, but people who cut themselves feel it allows them to express the feelings that they cannot put into words and to feel in control of their own bodies. They feel cutting is a welcome distraction from overwhelming emotions or difficult life circumstances.
Self-harm and cutting can actually provide a form of temporary relief; however, it comes at a cost. Over time, self-injury brings more problems than it solves. Other feelings like shame and guilt soon follow and a downward spiral of depression begins, preventing people from learning more effective coping strategies. Other major problems may rise in the future, including drug and alcohol addiction and suicide.
Relationship between Child Sexual Abuse and Self-Harm
Although people who self-harm do so for many, many reasons, they mostly agree that it helps them get through the day. Most people do not turn to self-harm because they want to, but because they feel they need to. The intense emotions experienced by sexual abuse or rape victims may lead them to self-harm as an alternative form of coping.
Research states that childhood trauma such as sexual abuse contributes to the initiation of self-destructive behavior. Victims of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to engage in self-harm to reduce emotional distress associated with their abuse. Their emotional vulnerabilities create the need for self-injury as a coping strategy. People who experienced sexual abuse during their childhood feel they had no control over their bodies; self-injury provides them with the illusion that they are once again in control. People who self-harm learn to concentrate on the physical pain itself rather than the disturbing thoughts and memories.
Children who have been victims of sexual abuse can feel guilty for many reasons. They may blame themselves for causing it, not stopping it, or not telling about it sooner. Although it might be difficult to believe, shame and self-blame are very common responses to sexual abuse and, as the child grows older, are very difficult to overcome. Some survivors of sexual abuse cannot escape their feelings of guilt. As a result, they have an overwhelming need to punish themselves for the assault. Through self-harm, survivors feel they are getting what they deserve for what they have done in the past. Because of their disturbed emotions, they turn their anger towards themselves rather than their abuser. In other cases, the sexual trauma leaves people feeling numb and dissociated. Self-harm is their way of feeling something, rather than feeling nothing at all.
How to Overcome Self-Harm
If you or someone you care about use self-harm to cope with painful feelings, making a conscious decision to stop is the first step to treatment. Then, confide in someone who would be accepting and supportive of your problems. Self-harm is a way of managing the overwhelming stress and emotions you might have gone through as a result of the abuse, so it’s recommended to seek the help of a professional to find alternative methods of dealing with the emotional stress.
Instead of numbing your feelings, learn to pay attention to them. Don’t be scared that you will be overwhelmed by the pain. The human brain processes emotions quickly and lets them go to make room for new emotions. It’s only when you are trying too hard to fight your pain that it persists.
And as Anna Lee Gruenwald puts it at the end of her six-minute video, always remember that you are not a victim; you are survivor. You need to learn how to forgive yourself.