Child Sexual Abuse: Consequences and Implications

Gail Hornor, RNC, MS, PNP


J Pediatr Health Care. 2010;24(6):358-364. 

In This Article

Effects on Parenting

Given the preceding discussion linking sexual abuse with the development of multiple behavioral and psychiatric disorders including depression, substance abuse, and PTSD, it is no wonder that a history of child sexual abuse can negatively affect the individual's ability to parent and thus have negative effects on their offspring. Children born to mothers with a history of sexual abuse are more likely to be born pre-term, have a teenage mother, and be involved with CPS (Noll et al., 2008). Children born to sexually abused mothers are at increased risk to be abused (physically, emotionally, and sexually) by their mothers or by other individuals who are allowed access to vulnerable children. Dubowitz and associates (2001) describe the cumulative risk affect of childhood abuse. Mothers who were both sexually and physically abused were more likely to suffer from depressive symptoms and use harsh parenting techniques (verbal aggression and minor violence) than were mothers who were either sexually abused or physically abused. Mothers suffering only sexual or physical abuse were both more likely then mothers who experienced no form of childhood abuse to display depressive symptoms and use harsh parenting techniques. Children of mothers who were sexually abused or physically abused were more likely to exhibit internalizing behaviors such as withdrawal and depression than were children of mothers reporting no history of abuse. Children of mothers who were both sexually and physically abused or physically abused only were more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors, aggression, and delinquency than were children of non-abused mothers.

Inter-generational transmission of physical abuse is thought to develop as a result of patterning parental behavior experienced as a child; that is, a child who experiences physical abuse as a child is at risk to repeat this behavior as an adult (Zuravin, McMillin, DePanfilis, & Risley-Curtiss, 1996). Sexual abuse is uniquely different in that the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by males on females, so the likelihood of inter-generational transmission of sexual abuse is low (i.e., a female victim of child sexual abuse growing up to sexually abuse her own or other children as an adult). However, although female perpetrators of sexual abuse are much less common than male perpetrators of sexual abuse, when a woman does commit sexual abuse, she most likely was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. The inter-generational aspect of sexual abuse appears to be more closely related to the negative effects of her own sexual abuse, which impedes the mother's emotional and mental health, limiting her ability to make good parenting decisions to keep her children safe from sexual abuse. Woman who have been sexually abused may form relationships with individuals who then sexually abuse their children, leave the children in the care of individuals who sexually abuse them, and may be less aware of sexual abuse occurring within the family.

It also is important to note that experiencing sexual abuse as a child may make a parent, especially a mother, hyper-vigilant regarding the potential sexual abuse of his or her child. Parental sexual abuse hyper-vigilance affects the ability to make good parenting decisions and potentially can expose the child to unnecessary sexual abuse investigations and examinations and have a negative effect on the parent-child relationship.

A parental history of child sexual abuse also may have the positive effect of making the parent more empathetic to the child when sexual abuse occurs. The parent may feel responsible for the abuse, feel they have failed the child, and be strongly supportive of the child.


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