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Sexual Abuse in Childhood and Adult Problems


It is necessary to approach the study of mental health comprehensively. It is a well-known fact that even small but acute stresses experienced in childhood can provoke psychosomatic disorders in adulthood. However, data on the degree of pathogenicity of stress factors and the proportion of their participation in the etiology of these disorders are insufficient (Rind & Tromovitch, 1997). The purpose of this paper is to discuss the relationship between sexual abuse experienced in childhood and personality disturbances in adulthood.

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Researchers have differing opinions in regards to the effect of childhood trauma on the mental health of an individual in adulthood. In particular, one group of investigators claims that any stress experienced in childhood inevitably leads to the development of serious personality disorders in adulthood. Another group of researchers emphasizes the impossibility of generalizing the conclusions on this problem (Huh, Kim, Lee, & Chae, 2017).

The difficulty lies in the fact that some children develop psychosomatic disorders due to past violence and demonstrate a specific pattern of emotional reactions. In particular, they may suffer from feelings of fear and anxiety or develop an inadequate attitude towards themselves. In their turn, children with psychosomatic immunity more stable to the effects of certain stressors can develop either minimal or no reactions (Huh et al., 2017). Personality traits can enhance or minimize reactions, which leads to either the development or absence of consequences in adulthood. That is, the severity of mental trauma due to sexual violence will be individual in nature.

Further Points

Notably, although the debates are ongoing, all researchers agree that there is always a certain risk of developing mental manifestations (bipolar disorder, abuse, depression) in adulthood if the child experienced sexual abuse in childhood. The development of pathological disturbances and personality disorders can be affected not only by pathogenic external situations, that is, sexual violence, but also by conditionally pathogenic factors (Rind & Tromovitch, 1997).

For example, if a child has been sexually abused, and their immediate environment has not been able to provide an atmosphere of trust and security, then the risk of deviations and disturbances increases dramatically.

At the moment, one cannot say for sure whether sexual violence inevitably gives rise to severe personality disorders in adulthood. This is due to the fact that there is no single theoretical paradigm or research line in the study of violence. Researchers’ points of view often do not coincide because of the difference in terminology and the described phenomenology (Hengartner et al., 2015). Empirically verified data on the leading role of violence in the formation of particular psychopathology appear every year. Nevertheless, the nature of sexual abuse is multifaceted, and phenomenology is nonspecific; therefore, the study of sexual violence does not give a complete picture of the etiology and genesis of disorders in adulthood.

It should be noted that sexual violence implies not only physical but also emotional abuse of a child, and the allocation of these categories allows making an assumption about the multimodality of a victims’ experience. Emotional violence and deprivation cause significant damage to personality development and can become an additional trigger for the development of personality disturbances and deviations in adulthood (Hengartner et al., 2015). The complexity of this problem is one of the main concerns of researchers who study borderline personality disorders and other conditions.

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Thus, it can be concluded that there is a relationship between personality disorders in adulthood and sexual abuse of a person in childhood. However, an analysis of the latest research showed that not all children who suffered stress during childhood develop personality abnormalities as adults. It depends on how high is the immunity to stress in a particular child. Nonetheless, this does not mean that early traumatic experiences connected to sexual abuse do not affect the personality of an adult since childhood trauma can be detected at later stages of life.


Hengartner, M. P., Cohen, L. J., Rodgers, S., Müller, M., Roessler, W., & Ajdacic-Gross, V. (2015). Association between childhood maltreatment and normal adult personality traits: Exploration of an understudied field. Journal of Personality Disorders, 29(1), 1-14.

Huh, H. J., Kim, K. H., Lee, H. K., & Chae, J. H. (2017). The relationship between childhood trauma and the severity of adulthood depression and anxiety symptoms in a clinical sample: The mediating role of cognitive emotion regulation strategies. Journal of Affective Disorders, 213, 44-50.

Rind, B., & Tromovitch, P. (1997). A meta-analytic review of findings from national samples on psychological correlates of child sexual abuse. The Journal of Sex Research, 34(3), 237-255.

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