Childhood Sexual Abuse

Because childhood sexual abuse is so difficult to talk about, some people find it easier to ignore the problem. People who experience abuse – or complex trauma – as a child, often struggle with their psychological and physical health into adulthood. The more Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) a child has, the more significant the psychological and physical health consequences will be in adulthood.

Reaching out for help can feel impossible. But healing and recovery are possible through support, understanding and education.

Bob was abused by a family friend between the ages of 8 and 11. For many years after the abuse stopped, the perpetrator continued to attend family gatherings. Bob believed he was managing his feelings about this abuse by not telling a soul about it and by using prescription medication. Then one day, when Bob was 57, the lid that he had been keeping on the abuse exploded. When he sat in the circle on our Moving Beyond Trauma Program, Bob spoke for the very first time about what had happened.

What is Childhood Sexual Abuse?

The term child sexual abuse (or child sexual assault) refers to any sexual act or sexual threat imposed on a child by an adult, young person or older child. Adults and young people who sexually abuse children take advantage of the child’s trust, innocence and/or developmental stage. Those who coerce, trick or force sexual acts and behaviours on children are most commonly someone a child or young person trusts, and who has more power than the child or young person.

Many abused children have difficulty in developing a strong healthy attachment to a caregiver. Children who do not have healthy attachments have been shown to be more vulnerable to stress. They have trouble controlling and expressing emotions and may react violently or inappropriately in situations in which they feel threatened – and they will likely not even understand where their reaction is coming from.

Our ability to develop healthy, supportive relationships with friends and significant others depends on our having first developed those kinds of relationships with our family or primary caregiver. A child with a complex trauma history may have problems with intimate relationships and friendships and with authority figures such as teachers or police officers.

The biology of trauma

Sensory memory from trauma is imbedded very deeply in the hippocampus of the primitive brain. When we experience trauma, we secrete cortisol and inflammatory chemicals – our fight/flight system. The smells, sounds, sights, tastes and tactile feelings that accompanied the trauma are literally stuck onto neurons through the action of cortisol and are filed away in the hippocampus. This is the body’s way of keeping us safe in the future. Anytime we smell, see, feel, touch, taste or hear the things for which we have receptor sites on the neurons in the hippocampus, our body will automatically go into high alert.

This worked really well for humans when the threats were physical, as when a bear was lurking around the mouth of our cave. It was great that our body prepared itself unconsciously by going into high alert if we smelt or heard the snuffling of the bear or saw the shadow of the bear near the mouth of the cave. This surge of cortisol enabled us to tackle or escape the bear. The physical activity involved in our escape or fighting the bear used up all the cortisol in our system, and our body returned to its natural homeostatic or balanced state.

When cortisol is high in our body, our immune system cannot function well. A person who lives with emotional trauma from early childhood abuse may well secrete higher levels of cortisol because, for them, the world is a threatening place.

However, a person may have no idea about the connection between their irritable outbursts, their shyness or bossiness, their people-pleasing behaviours or their feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, despair or defeat – and what happened to them as a child. It often takes years or decades for a person to understand that their reactivity – or violence – stems from past abuse. This reactivity applies equally to children who were physically or emotionally abused as well as for children sexual abused.

When people understand the biology of trauma, they’re more easily able to engage with and heal past traumas. Healing from trauma is always possible.

Symptoms to look out for

Childhood sexual abuse may lead to adverse psychological, physical and social outcomes such as:

  • Increased depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Antisocial behaviour
  • Substance abuse and addictions
  • Compulsive behaviours
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicidal behaviour or ideation
  • Intrusive memories or nightmares about the abuse
  • Extreme reactions, angry outbursts, reckless behaviour
  • Avoiding people, places or conversations that trigger memories
  • Extreme distress in reaction to triggers such as sounds, images, smells, tastes, tactile sensations
  • There is considerable research drawing a link between the development of cancer in people who have multiple ACEs (Adverse Childhood Events).

Immediate help

  • Call 000 if your life is in danger
  • For crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • Blue Knot Foundation provides counselling support for people who have experienced childhood trauma
  • Beyondblue website contains many useful forums and resources


Education can assist a person to understand their behaviours and begin the process of healing.

Effective treatments for overcoming trauma include psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, and medication.

It can take time to discover the best treatment for each person, so it’s best to work closely with your GP or other trusted and qualified health professional to find what works for you.


Some of these practices can help you to calm your mind and improve your wellbeing and can be found on our toolkit page:

  • Keys to help you sleep better
  • Meditation practices
  • Trauma recovery workbook
  • Recovering from Trauma video series

How Quest for Life can help

It takes strength and resilience to work through trauma caused by childhood sexual abuse, but healing and recovery are possible through support, compassion and education. Quest for Life can assist you in your healing journey through our residential programs. On our programs, you’ll be nourished, educated and supported to create an environment for profound healing.

Our 5-day residential Moving Beyond Trauma program offers an effective and holistic approach to managing and healing post-trauma suffering in a confidential and safe environment. The program outlines exciting developments in understanding how trauma impacts the brain and body and evidence-based therapies and practices that heal both the brain and nervous system.

Quest for Life knows how to help: External research conducted by the University of Queensland shows that Quest’s Moving Beyond Trauma participants feel better after attending a program and that this improvement increases over time.

Fill in the Contact Form below and one of our Program Advisors will be in touch to answer your questions or to ascertain the most appropriate program for your needs.