Sexually Victimized Children

Worrying and fretting about not doing things well enough and about failing are, by themselves, not particularly troublesome. Some anxiety and concern are both normal and useful. Both adults and children get up-tight in new situations, when doing especially difficult or important things, or when others are judging what they do. If we might not do well or could fail and if it would make a difference, some anxiety is to be expected.

Here is the problem. For some youngsters and especially for many abused and neglected children, these feelings are a regular part of life and a usual response to many if not most circumstances. This is true whether the activity or situation is new or familiar, important or inconsequential. They do not necessarily think they will fail. They are just afraid they might. At a deep and vital level, some children believe they have failed: have failed as children, failed as family members, failed as people. If this were not true, they would not have been abused or neglected.

This is what is happening. The abused child's sense of self-worth and esteem is open to change without notice. There is very little inherent self-worth and a strong need to get affirmation again and again. The young person's self-esteem is so low any failure or doing anything less than perfectly jeopardizes the very essence of who the child is.

Think about it in this way. If every action you took defined whether you were good or bad, worthwhile or not worthwhile, how would you feel when it came time to act? Young people whose self-esteem is low feel that way much of the time.

These types of thoughts and feelings can escalate to where the youngster does not start activities for fear of their turning out badly anyway. If activities start, the child gives up quickly and very easily. The self-defeating cycle is insidious. The child's low self-esteem means there is little inherent, self-perceived value. Actions and activities are the only way to become worthwhile. This makes everything so important failing would lead to personal and emotional disaster.

Here is the catch. The child thinks, 'Someone as unimportant and worthless as I cannot handle anything so important and consequential. Failing would be worse than if I just do not try at all. Therefore, there is no point in trying. If I have been so stupid as to start trying, I might as well quit. It would be better to give up than to let everyone know I am a failure.'

How do others feel? Here is the other side of the coin of self-esteem. If the young person is a lowly penny, the child also is the bad penny of myth and metaphor. The child does not like himself and assumes everyone shares his assessment. The youngster is self-deprecating and makes negative observations and comments about this worthless penny. 'At least I am smart enough to understand how stupid I really am.'

The cycle is complete. The youngster's self-esteem is low. This keeps him from doing anything to feel better. The lack of action and success affirm the negative thoughts and feelings. Now, the child steps back and judges, 'I am someone who cannot succeed, is unimportant, and of little value. Such a person adds up to zero, less than a penny.'

Although these thoughts and feelings are very disabling for any child, low self-esteem is even more pervasive for abused children. For example, most youngsters have some ambivalence about their physical and sexual development. For some, these concerns can be intense and persistent. This is particularly true for those who see themselves as developing slower or later than they think the norm is. It can also be a problem for those who develop more or earlier than most. Nonetheless, these self-perception difficulties are, for most youngsters, normal and do not affect self-esteem in any harmful or continuing way. It is just rough to be at that between age.

For those children whose self-esteem is already abnormally low, these types of thoughts and feelings have a double edge. First, they tend to value themselves physically and sexually negatively as an extension of generally negative self-perceptions and pathological life-experiences. 'Since I am worthless, my physical and sexual self is not right either.' These feelings are there no matter what the reality is for the young person.

Here is the other edge. Others may see them as physically attractive or sexually appealing. This makes the youngster vulnerable. A peer or older person pays attention to the child with the intent of exploiting her (or his) vulnerability. The attention is pleasant; and the feelings are good. Sex is a way to be important, to be of value to someone. Whether the sex is gentle or violent, this new source of attention and personal power is compelling. Out of low self-esteem comes an often willing victim.

At the extreme, young people with very low self-esteem extend their negative thoughts and feelings into a subtle and sometimes overt self-hatred. At this level, they feel no one loves or cares about them. Even more destructively, they do not think they are someone anyone could or should love or care for in any way. At this point, the youngster is anyone's victim. The only worthwhile goal is, under any circumstances, to avoid being alone. The child will do whatever it takes not to be alone. The cycle ends. The youngster no longer exists in the life and vitality of innocent humanity. The young person is an object to all who will take advantage. To her, being used and abused is more than she deserves. After all, it is at least attention; and she deserves nothing, not even attention.

By Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. March 23, 2017