Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse

It wasn’t until the 1970s that, as a society, we began to really look at the problem of sexual abuse. Mental health providers began to scramble, looking for effective ways to help adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Thankfully, a few decades later, and with a lot of practice and research behind us, we know more about the healing process of adult survivors of sexual abuse than ever before.

Many adult survivors manage things by working hard to “forget” or not think about the abuse. Sometimes survivors find great success as they work non-stop, often caring for others in some way. Unfortunately, some adult survivors avoid working through their traumas by hurting themselves with drugs and alcohol, excessive exercise, unhealthy relationships with food, or harming themselves in other ways. These means of coping help the survivor to avoid the pain of past memories of abuse. Either way, after awhile these coping techniques often stop working, which is when many adult survivors turn to the support of others.

How to support an adult survivor

Often, survivors of sexual abuse grow up feeling very isolated and vulnerable, a feeling that may continue into their adult lives. Sexual abuse may have influenced all parts of a survivor's life, including communication style, self-confidence, and trust levels. Adult survivors may appear to be strong and have dealt with the past abuse, however, they may be falling apart inside. Sometimes others get impatient with survivors for not “getting past it” sooner. Remember, adult survivors sometimes are feeling overwhelmed, and need your patience and support. Healing takes time. There may be changes in your relationship with a survivor as they heal.

  • Believe the Survivor even when…
    …they doubt themselves
    …their memories are vague
    …what they tell you sounds extreme
  • Let them know that you are willing to listen to them with respect
  • Validate the survivor's feelings: they need to feel them, express them and be heard, and they do not expect you to “fix” anything.
  • Take a clear stance that the abuse/assault is not the survivors fault: regardless of the circumstances, no one asks to be abused or assaulted. They did what they had to do to survive. It is always the fault of the offender/perpetrator.
  • Encourage the survivor to get help and support: in addition to offering your own caring, encourage them to reach out to others.
  • Educate yourself: having a basic idea of what the survivor is going through will help you to be supportive. Get support for your feelings about the abuse so you can be there for the survivor.
  • Resist seeing the survivor as a victim: continue to see them as a strong, courageous person who is reclaiming their own life.