How Child Sexual Abuse Impacts the Developing Brain
(part 4 in a 5 part series)
Child sexual abuse doesn’t only impact your child when it happens but can impact her into her teen years. Often times as children enter puberty old symptoms and behaviors begin to re-emerge, even if the child has had therapy before. Then there are teens who are sexually abused or assaulted for the first time during this time period. These teens often have behavior changes as a result of this type of trauma.
One of the major reasons why symptoms may re-emerge is that once your child enters middle school the changing social dynamics and expectancies are often triggering. Triggers can be anything in the environment that activate the stress response system and is often related to past traumatic events.
The Hierarchical Development Of The Brain
The brain develops in a hierarchical manner. It starts with the development of the brainstem (in utero), followed by the diencephalon (in utero and the first couple years of life), then the limbic system and cortex (full development occurs around age 25/26). The brainstem is your basic physiology and is what helps alert us to something being out of balance. The diencephalon is the go between of the brainstem and limbic system. It’s job is to relay sensory information between different parts of the brain as well as controlling parts of the nervous system and connects with the limbic system to aid in managing emotions and memories. Moving into the limbic system, it’s major jobs are: memory consolidation, emotional processing and the reward system. The cortex is the largest and most complex part of the brain which has many jobs. This includes: abstract thinking, planning, and most importantly it can be used to manage other lower parts of the brain.
Now in the first blog of this series I go more in depth about brain development so you can read that here. What’s important to know is that these systems are inter related and connected. When we experience threats there’s a multi step process that occurs rapidly in our brain which decides the best method of self protection, starting with the brainstem before finally moving up to the cortex.
The Teen Brain
Your teen’s brain is going through another huge developmental burst, just like during their first 5 years. Although the brain won’t be fully mature for another decade, your teens cortex has great capacity. The area of focus for your teens brain is continue pruning as well as changes in the limbic system and cortex, which is why your teen might appear very mature one day and immature the next. At times they can use their cortex to manage their other systems, while at other times they are reacting on impulses.
The limbic system is known as our emotional centers but the limbic system does so much more than that. The limbic system’s big job is memory consolidation and the reward system. This is one of the reasons why teens engaging in substance abuse is so worrying, this part of the brain is going through rapid development during this timed substances attach to this system.
As these brain systems develop hormonal influences during puberty start to make them selves more apparent. This is another reason why we might see an emergence of trauma symptoms during puberty. Sex hormones (estrogen, testosterone, etc) begin to increase (depending on gender typically) and these hormones influence other parts of the brain. These hormonal changes can also begin to drive the desire for more intimate connections with others.
The Life Of Your Teen
Your teens major goal during this time is expanding their autonomy and doing more on their own. Their relationships with peers become more intimate, both in romantic and platonic terms. They desire and seek out connection with others and it’s incredibly important for them to fit in. When they feel like they are different in any way they carry a lot of fear and worry. This fear and worry can lead them to engaging in undesirable behaviors.
When Your Teen Experiences Sexual Assault
During this time your teen is at risk for being sexually abused or assaulted. One of the more common spaces where teens are at high risk are online. Many child predators use online spaces to recruit for pornography and human trafficking. To learn more about rooming behaviors online you can watch this video here. This is why many teens become victims of sexual assault, which they often feel a lot of shame and guilt around.
When a teen falls into a predators trap and they become a victim of sexual assault, this trauma can change their neurobiology. Remember trauma activates the stress response system as our bodies go into survivor mode. When this happens repeatedly our baselines shift and even small triggers will activate the stress response system a lot quicker. For a teen who is all ready going through hormonal shifts and developmental changes in the brain, they are even more susceptible to these neurobiological shifts.
As your teen enters adolescences and begins to have more autonomy it’s even more imperative that we give them the tools for self protection. This is done by encouraging your teen to find what is right for them and give them the tools for self advocacy.
6 Steps To Helping Your Teen Heal From Sexual Abuse
It’s important that when you learn your child has experienced sexual abuse or assault that you provide them with support to help them heal and not have lingering negative impacts. Below are 6 steps you can use to support your teen on their healing journey.
- Psychoeducation about trauma and how the ways in which trauma changes the body. Teens are older and very smart. Introducing them to the concepts about their stress response system and their reward systems can give them some information about how their body responds to stress. When people understand the why, they often feel less strange” or “different” which can also help them feel more open to making changes so they feel more in control.
- Empowerment and having a voice. It’s important that they understand that love and relationships are important and yet not everyone has access to you or the right to you. Your teen has the power to surround herself with people who will lift her up and not harm her. It’s also important for her to learn how say “yes” and “no” to situations that feel right or wrong for her. We want to help her feel confidant and comfortable in the choices she makes.
- The power and importance of consent. Others should be respecting her and her body. We also want to help your teen learn the difference between feeling nervous and excited and nervous and afraid. This is imperative in social or relational interactions. When falling in love or even having sex for the first time it’s normal to feel nervous. We all feel nervous because in new situations but these nervous feelings are often met with excitement. With anticipation. On the other hand some situations or interactions make us feel nervous and afraid. When we have these feelings it’s important to listen to them, not push them down. To listen to our bodies and get as to why we are feeling this way. By listening to our bodies and learning how to trust ourselves we feel more empowered. This information will also tell us what type of people are safe or unsafe.
- Body work so they understand what feels good and what doesn’t. The sensations that are felt give information about what we need to attend to. This process will help your teen get in touch with their different body sensations and how those sensations give her information about her world. This goes hand in hand with step 3 in learning how to be more empowered and trust in oneself.
- Surrounding them with healthy relationships. As your teen reaches adulthood she is going to be cultivating more outside relationships. You can help your teen by setting a good example with the people you allow in your life but you can also do this by encouraging your child to spend time with people who bring her joy and who support her, not make her feel down. Go out of your way to have those people over or to accommodate their relationship building (when your teen wants to spend time with this other person or people)
- A safe space. You want your teen to come to you and talk to you when things come up but also be able to identify other positive adult supportive relationships where she can process things when they come up. The more loving relationships a person can have, the better they are.
Child sexual abuse and assault is a huge problem that really needs to be discussed more. Not only so we are aware of how pervasive it is and how we can protect our children but also so we can help survivors not feel so alone. When teens are sexually assaulted they often feel a lot of shame and guilt and my hope is that this blog can help alleviate those negative feelings for them.
Stay tuned for the final blog in the series here where we will look into the long term affects of child sexual abuse and how adults who have experienced this trauma can heal.