How Sexual Abuse Wires The Toddler Brain and What You Can Do About It

This is blog number 2 in a 5 part series

Child Sexual Abuse Effects

Child sexual abuse is a major reality that affects 1 in 5 girls, and 1 in 7 boys, every year. Abusers are often people the child knows, a parent, caregiver, religious/spiritual figure, and/or even other children/teens. They can really truly be anyone who is in the child’s life. Child sexual abuse not only changes the wiring of the developing brain, so that neuronal connections used when the stress response system (fight-flight-freeze) is activated, but it also impacts a child’s relationships with others, as attachment becomes disrupted. I talked about all of this more thoroughly in part 1 of this series (check it out if you haven’t all ready), so here  in part 2, I’m going to focus on the child development period of 0-5. 

child sexual abuse treatment  in toddler The First 5 Years

0-5 or the critical first 5 years, as I like to call it, is a time of rapid brain development. We are born with billions of neurons and through repeated actions we strengthen what we use and discard the ones we don’t. The associations we make during this time occur more rapidly than at any other time of our development, with the exception of adolescence. This is why trauma and abuse, particularly sexual abuse, and the subsequent trauma reactions associated with it, are so hard to change. They become so engrained in the survivors psyche that they may seem like it’s just that persons personality. As if they were born with those reactions and thus they cannot change it. But the brain is plastic. We can always change up the wiring. It just takes time and different experiences to create new associations to replace the old (rewiring). This blog and the subsequent ones in this series will talk more in depth about this, by focusing on each (core) developmental period. 

The Brain’s Hierarchy of Development 

There is a hierarchy to how all of our brains develop. We start with the basics, in utero, that which makes up our core physiology (our brainstem). After birth and during these first 5 years the diencephalon and the limbic system begin their development. The diencephalon moves information between brain regions as it takes in sensory information. Think of it like a connection to between the brainstem and the limbic system (although it does more than what I’m simply stating). The limbic system is our emotional and memory system. Our cortex is also developing during this time and we use it to make meaning, problem solve, and do a whole host of other things (most importantly it helps us with emotional regulation).

In a typically developing brain all of these regions work together smoothly and efficiently. The organization of the lower parts of the brain need to be fully functional in order for the top parts of the brain to be available. The first 5 years is the time when organization of the lower parts of the brain (brainstem, diencephalon, and limbic system) are the focus of attention. (I just want to note that the limbic system just like the cortex reaches maturation in our mid to late 20’s but the limbic system goes through huge bursts of organizational development during the first 5 years and also during adolescence, which is why these two periods are often very tough for parents/caregivers and the individual going though the experience. With teens they can often use their cortex to manage some of their limbic system responses in the form of emotional regulation while toddlers cannot, for the most part. They still rely heavily on the adults in their lives for co regulation or essentially helping them to calm down when they are stressed. )

So to break this down a little simpler, think our basic physiology keeps us going, the limbic system is where we house our emotions and memories, and the diencephalon is the connection between the two. So here’s an example of how this works. Our ability to seek pleasure or reward is a limbic system function that begins from day 1. It’s based on what we individually find pleasing based on past experiences. This can be a hug or talking to someone when we are feeling down, both are attachment based rewards. This reward mechanism comes by our past experiences of being held and feelings of love from our primary caregivers early on in life when we were distressed. When we cried (brainstem physiology sign of distress) as babies, they came to us and soothed us both with their loving embrace, rocking, and gentle words (limbic system and attachment system). They did this enough times that we learned to expect it. As we continued to develop we moved from an adult just providing us with this type of reward to being able to actually ask for it (cortex functioning). Just ask any screaming toddler who is upset if they want a hug. They might decline at first or they might say yes, but by the end of of their meltdown they are fully in our arms, sniffling, and settling down. 

In the above scenario you can see just how that one building block for reward can be tied into attachment and emotional regulation. We have many many of these types of building blocks, from sleep, to large motor functioning, to the ability to integrate our senses, processing information, memory and learning, attunement, attention, and so on.

child sexual abuse in toddlersYour Toddler’s Brain

For a typically developing brain of a toddler, yes their lower functions predominate, but they do have a great deal of cortical functioning. During this time they have some ability to delay gratification but their basic physiological needs will not be able to be overridden like in an adult. If they are hungry they let you know and it can be very hard at times to soothe them when they are distressed about their hunger cues. They cannot reason abstractly that they must wait for dinner they want something now. They may be able to be distracted for some time and they will often calm if they see you preparing something. Even babies have the ability to do this, just watch how a baby looks at you as you prepare their bottle or get their spoon and bib out. This comes from past experiences about feeding and this can often delay or temporarily stop fussiness. Their cortex and limbic system are even at work here as the act of watching is enough to keep them calm (emotional regulation).

Toddlers also do not have a concept of separateness which is why they believe what they like you also like. If you have ever pretended to cry in front of a toddler you might notice how they will first look at you confused and then once they figure out you are crying (they don’t quite understand it’s not real that for older children) they might come sit on your lap (which is something they might do when sad), give you a teddy bear or toy (they might want this when they cry), or give you another comfort object. Again this is their cortex making meaning from past experiences they just don’t have the developmental capability to understand that you might want something different. But they do know that you are distressed and they are trying to help. This can be extended to everything in their world which is why they blame themselves for the abuse or other bad things happening in their life. They believe they caused it because they are so concrete and literal at this age.

There is more that your toddler can do because of their developing cortex and the organization of their lower brains. The regulated organization of the brain is dependent on a well rounded loving, safe, and nurturing environment. If the environment the toddler is raised in is unsafe, unloving, or unstimulating then the brain’s development will reflect this. This is most evident when looking at the brains development when there is trauma and/or abuse. 

When Sexual Abuse Happens During Those Critical First 5 Years 

(For the purpose of this blog I will use the word toddler to describe this developmental stage which also includes infancy.)

Sadly most children experience their first sexual assault/abusive experience during their toddler years, with the average age being around age 3. As stated above, the brain is developing rapidly during this time, and the foundation is being set for who the toddler will become as they enter adulthood. This foundation is set by the experiences the toddler has throughout their young life which also includes the relationships or the attachment they have with their primary caregivers. 

When trauma occurs the stress response system is deployed (the stress response system is actually a lower brain function). It starts by the brain sensing a threat in the environment, in this case the abuser. The sense of threat is brought on by feelings of anxiety and fear, which are housed in the limbic system. At this time access to the cortex is shut off as the limbic system and brainstem work together as a source of protection. A toddler, by virtue of their development, still has an under developed cortex and so they are even more at the mercy of their lower brain (the limbic system and brainstem). Also by virtue of their size they are typically unable to utilize the mobilizing defenses of fight or flight and so freeze becomes the one most likely to be deployed, in terms of self protection and survival. 

In the freeze state, heart rate slows down, the body is flooded with endorphins (natural pain killer hormones), and disconnection between mind and body often occur. In this state, which can also be seen in the wild with prey vs predator, the body is trying to do one of two things. Either to be so still as if the person is dead (“playing dead”) or if that doesn’t work the endorphins prepare the body for being attacked by protecting it from physical pain. 

With repeated traumatic experiences, the mechanisms in the brain that get developed are the ones related to self protection. This includes scanning your environment (hypervigilance), automatic engagement of fight-flight-freeze with reminders of past trauma (triggers), and together what you have is someone who is more likely to have extremes in emotions (emotional dysregulation) because their trauma reactions make them on edge (hyper arousal). 

When the brain is repeatedly replying the stress response system without resolution the access to the cortex is regularly being shut off. Essentially, the cortex is constantly being unavailable, as the lower brain activities predominate, so all the things the cortex allows us to do will be compromised. This because it has never really had a chance to or is inconsistently be allowed to function. What is constantly available and functioning is the lower parts of the brain. 

toddlerEarly Trauma and Attachment Foundation=Insecure Attachment

When the abuser is someone within the home, typically a parent but could include any other adult or older child, attachment becomes disrupted and distorted. The same person responsible for protecting you and caring for you also harms you. Now you have got your need for love and protection tied to anxiety, fear, and arm. This is how your brain will develop as it doesn’t have any experience to contradict this, at this time. During the first 5 years when connections in the brain are happening so fast it’s no wonder that people repeat traumas from their past.

How Do You Know If Your Child Has Been Sexually Abused vs What Is Normal Curiosity

So what exactly is normal toddler sexual exploration and what are red flags that your toddler might have been sexually abused. This can be tough to discern but it’s important that you, as a parent or caregiver who is responsible for a toddler, to know  and educate yourself in order to prevent abuse or help rescue a child who is being sexually abused.

Typically toddlers explore their bodies and may ask questions about yours but they do not know about sex in the same way that we adults do. In fact one major red flag is a toddler who knows sexual terminology and seems have some familiarity with sexual acts. You might see this in their play with other children or in solo play in the form of re-enactments. If a toddler is afraid to go home or afraid of a certain individual this is a red flag as well. A sudden shift in the child’s behavior is another key red flag, it will usually look like night and day, opposite. Pain in the genital or anal region is often a sign.

Normal curiosity is not sexual in nature. They can also be easily redirected once told their behavior is inappropriate. Toddlers typically do not use objects in a sexual manner and masturbation might be witnessed but its either at times of distress or even sometimes when a toddler is trying to sleep and it’s used as a self regulating tool.  

Your Child Has Been Sexually Abused What Do I do?

One of the hardest things to hear about as a parent is that your toddler has been sexually abused. There are so many thoughts and emotions that come to mind that you might become so overwhelmed that you just feel numb. This is a pretty typical and normal response to such shocking news. Your first step needs to be you getting calm and acknowledging what happened. You then need to get and keep the individual away from your toddler. This can be done by calling the authorities. Now just love and support your child. Do not ask questions because you can inadvertently lead the toddler on and can affect their ability to share the information accurately to the best of their abilities. Let a professional take care f this piece. At this point you just want to focus on re-establishing safety and you as their protector. 

Healing and Treatment During The First 5 Years

So your toddler was sexually abused and the abuser is no longer in contact with them. Now it’s time to talk about healing. I want to state that you cannot change the fact that your toddler was sexually violated. It happened and part of the healing process is for you the adult to come to terms with this reality and not avoid it because of how it makes you feel. I’m not saying shout to the world or constantly bring it up to your toddler, but know that this is something that happened to your toddler and can have lasting impacts is important. Furthermore, the brain is plastic, so just because they have trauma reactions now, it doesn’t mean that they are scarred for ever. In fact part of healing is to help your toddler make new associations that will target the calming of their nervous systems as well as developing a different belief system around relationships and the people in their lives. I also encourage you to get professional help from a skilled therapist because you will be doing a lot of dyadic work that will not only focus on helping the child learn new skills but will also help repair your attachment relationship. 

Protecting Your Toddler In The Future: What Abusers Look For and How You Can Ask Questions To Determine Whether The Adult Is Safe For Your Toddler To be Around

We all know the risks of sexual abuse and how this impacts toddlers development. Knowing that they are so vulnerable, it is our job to protect them from harm. Therefore, as part of our jobs as protectors let’s look at the different ways we can keep abusers out of our lives and away from our toddlers.

Abusers often look for toddlers who are vulnerable. This means they are very skilled at reading familial dynamics so they can first gain trust to enter the home. Whether this be a family member (not a parent/primary caregiver) or a family friend the tactic is still the same. They seek proximity (closeness) to the toddler through the family. They often pay special attention to your child, which may on the surface seem very caring. These individuals are often charismatic, loving, say all the right things, very understanding, and loyal. They might be very affectionate with your toddler, they try to get the toddler more one on one with them and generally try to isolate them from their parents/caregivers. They encourage secret keeping and slowly begin to cross the toddlers boundaries. These behaviors are called grooming behaviors and they are the precursor to the actual sexual violation.

So before you allow anyone in your life, whether you have children or you’re just dating as a single person with the hope of starting a family with someone, I encourage you to really try to get to know the individual. Don’t just trust the words that come out of their mouth but investigate what others say about them. Here are some questions you can ask or things to look for the are signs of a child sexual abuser: 

  1. Is this individual spending too much time with my toddler and why? 
  2. Do they request to be around my toddler even if I am not around or otherwise trying to be alone with my toddler?
  3. Do they seem to often touch or be extremely affectionate with my toddler? (look for accidentally touching in your presence)
  4. Do they offer to help me change the toddlers clothes, bathe them, change their diaper etc and take a long time than what feels right?
  5. Is this person offering to “help me with my child” or “help” my toddler without anything in return?
  6. Is the person trying to be your toddlers friend?
  7. Has this person ever been accused of sexual assault or abuse?
  8. Has my toddlers behavior change suddenly and dramatically?
  9. Does my toddler seem afraid or uncomfortable around them?
  10. Does my toddler suddenly have rashes or irritation or pain in the genital or anal region?

Special Note: When the abuser is parent/caregiver the trust and the access to the child are all ready present. They still often engage in grooming behaviors but it may be harder for you to recognize because it might have always been there to a certain degrees. After all a parent who gives their toddlers kisses and hugs is not out of the norm so you might not pick up on the abuser. Even still trust your gut. There is typically something off about the affection that is shown to the toddler. The toddler might suddenly become afraid of the parent/caregiver or they might have pretty significant behavior changes that come on suddenly.  

Conclusion:

Toddlerhood is the most common time for the onset of child sexual abuse. Toddlers are vulnerable by their size snd brain development which makes abusers feel like they can get away with the abuse. This is why it is up to us as there adults who don’t abuse to not only be vigilant about who we let around our toddlers and to put a stop to it once we find out but we also must support toddlers in healing if it does happen. Remember that this is a critical time for brain development and with the frequent deployment of the stress response system you are creating a brain foundation where these areas of the brain get strengthen and others are weakened. This can have devastating affects for the toddler as they develop into adults. 

Stay tuned for the next blog in the series here we look more deeper into child sexual abuse from 5-10 years old. Just like in the block there will e information on how to help your child survivor heal from child sexual abuse.

 

Jessica Lang

Jessica Lang

Hi I'm Jessica and I am passionate about empowering survivors to find peace, happiness, and success in life. I specialize in treating trauma using the mind body connection and helping expats who are having a hard time adjusting to life in their new countries.

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