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Julie: Incest

Julie was sexually abused by her step-father between the ages of 6 and 10. He would wake her up in the middle of the night when her mother (who did shift work) was not there. Although worried about Julie’s behaviour, her mother never suspected for a moment what was happening. It was Julie’s teacher who associated her behavioural problems with sexual abuse and who raised this as a possibility.

Victim’s response and symptoms

Nervous and out of control, Julie found it difficult to manage her emotions. For example, she was sometimes very rough during her games and would often scream. She also displayed inappropriate sexual behaviour. For example, she would sometimes take all of her clothes off (in front of people she knew, as well as strangers), or consciously move in a suggestive manner. These ‘seductive’ behaviours contrasted with her rebellious attitude towards her attachment figures.

When playing with her doll, Julie often undressed it and rubbed a pen against its crotch. She may do this several times a day. She also repeatedly drew scenes representative of her sexual abuse.

At bedtime Julie became ‘a real baby’ according to her mother, demanding her attention and presence. She had problems with bedwetting and complained of pelvic pains.

Julie is now 26 years old and divorced. She has a partner but does not want to live with him. Recently her own daughter turned six and her past sexual abuse has come back to haunt her more vividly than before. She feels tormented by ‘dirty’ images. She has decided to see a specialist because she fears for her own daughter. She has no libido and would go without sex completely were it not for her partner’s needs.

The psychologist’s observations

Child sexual abuse can have a lasting impact on the victim’s attachment style. For example, Julie is particularly suspicious of and hostile towards men and has developed sexual problems. Note also, that her symptoms became worse when her own daughter reached the age that she had been when the abuse had started.

Traumatic event and peritraumatic response

Julie’s physical integrity was violated repeatedly over a long period of time. Her experience can be classified as traumatic.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Julie exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress when she was still a child. After a relative period of improvement, we can see a resurgence of symptoms occurring in conjunction with her own daughter turning 6.

At the time of the abuse:

  • Flashbacks: Julie relives the traumatic scene via intrusive thoughts in the day and nightmares at night.
  • Repetitive behaviour: It is relatively common to see children repeatedly replay traumatic scenes. This can be carried out through drawing, stories, or games.
  • Physiological responses: Julie displays physiological reactions when exposed to reminders of the abuse.
  • Regressive behaviour: Children with symptoms of post-traumatic stress can go through a regressive phase in their development. This can be seen in bedwetting, not wanting to sleep alone or with the light off, or in demanding constant attention from their parents.
  • Attachment problems: Julie has developed an ambivalent attachment style that includes inappropriate sexual behaviour and hostility.

As an adult:

  • Reactivation of symptoms: Symptoms of post-traumatic stress can resurface on the anniversary of the traumatic events or even at the birth of one’s first child, in the case of sexual abuse as a child. Note that the resurgence of symptoms is not an inevitability.

Last updated: 1/1/2010 | © info-trauma 2009