The Effects of Child Molestation on Adults

By Kerry O'Donnell
The emotional effects of sexual molestation on a child can last well into adulthood.
Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images

The statistics are staggering -- there are an estimated 39 million survivors of child sexual abuse in the United States. One out of every four girls and one out of every six boys are sexually abused, with more than 20% abused before the age of eight. Survivors often bring the emotional effects of the abuse into their adulthood. There can be self blame and feelings of guilt, emotional isolation and an inability to trust. These scars may result in depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, physical ailments, sexual dysfunction and even suicidal behavior.

Emotional and Physical Effects

Many adult victims of child molestation struggle with depression. They frequently have issues with low self esteem and/or self hatred. Substance abuse, alcoholism and suicidal behavior can also be present. The victim may also struggle with anxiety and panic disorders. Physical ailments can include headaches, gastrointestinal problems and asthma. There are also high incidents of insomnia, obesity and other eating disorders, as well as self-injury behavior.


For many victims, everyday situations or occurrences, items, or smells may be triggers that bring back memories of the abuse. In extreme cases, the trigger may set off a flashback, where the victim actually experiences the abuse, as if it were happening at that moment. Dissociation may also take place. This is when the victim has the ability to mentally flee from stressful or harmful situations by creating a "safe place" in his mind.


Frequently, in cases of child molestation, the abuser held a level of trust in the relationship with the child, perhaps as a family member, friend or teacher. The betrayal of that trust can shatter the child's ability to trust, even into adulthood. Many victims have difficulty sustaining adult relationships. There is also the problem many victims have with abusive relationships. Studies have shown that many victims of child sexual abuse develop a pattern of being victimized over and over again in domestic violence relationships as adults.


A child who is sexually abused may develop very deep anger issues that can have serious consequences as an adult. There may be anger at themselves for not being able to stop the abuse, anger at caregivers for not protecting them from the abuser, and anger directed at the abuser. This anger can cause the victim to become an abuser and to lash out at others, both violently and sexually. Many perpetrators of sexual abuse against children were also victims themselves.

About the Author

Kerry O'Donnell has been writing professionally since 2008, when she began freelancing for the online magazine She later became the website's associate editor. She also serves as an associate editor of books for The Independent online magazine. O'Donnell holds an associate degree in criminal justice.