The Hidden Harm of Covert Sexual Abuse

Whether it’s in trauma therapy or sex addiction recovery, one of the most common things that is in our clients’ backgrounds is sexual abuse. When we think of sexual abuse, it can seem pretty obvious what this entails. Overt abuse involves the actual physical violation of another person. However, covert abuse can impact many people, without them realizing that this has happened. Covert abuse is the objectification of children by their parents, as well as a lack of boundaries. Children in these situations are turned into surrogate partners of a parent.

People who have experienced covert abuse can struggle in their adult relationships. They can struggle to get close with another person. Fears of connection and vulnerability are common as well. This is because that person has already been taken advantage of.

Covert abuse comes from childhood attachment between a parent and the child. A parent may treat a child as an adult friend or confidant. Parents who do this also will often objectify and can even put their codependent relationship dynamics onto a child.

Parents who do this can also be void of boundaries on sexuality. They will talk to their child about sex. They can share information about their sex life or cross sexual boundaries that aren’t age appropriate for that child (i.e. joking about sex as if the child is actually an adult). Children need room to develop their own sexuality, but in these situations there can be little room for it to grow, because there is only room left for the parent’s sexuality.

What’s the point of identifying covert abuse?

I want to tread carefully here. Searching for potentially traumatic incidents can lead to even more trauma. So I want you to be careful if you’re reading this and re-examining your own life. If you do identify this type of abuse in your history, it may be time to find a good therapist or group to help you navigate through this.

Covert abuse can be important to identify because it can be a root cause of many interpersonal issues. For example, because boundaries were so violated as a child, it can make adult boundaries in romantic relationships confusing. Sometimes these boundaries can even be confusing in friendships. It can be difficult to know how vulnerable you should allow yourself to become.

People’s boundary systems can go awry when they’ve dealt with these types of relationships with their parents. It can be hard to know how close you can safely get with a partner or even a friend. Children who have been covertly abused were used by their parents. As adults, sometimes this can lead to relationships where you’re used again. Other times it can be avoidance of relationships to avoid ever being used in this way again. There are also people who go back and forth in these relationship patterns.

Another thing that is common is that people self-deprecate their struggles. They feel as though they shouldn’t be having struggles because they don’t believe they ever dealt with any type of traumatic experiences. Identifying this type of abuse can be a struggle. It can even be heartbreaking. However, people also can find validation in being able to own this part of their stories, which allows them to redevelop boundary systems. It also helps people identify where they want to brave getting vulnerable again.

And yes, men deal with it too.

Men will often ignore the impact of their pasts. This is even more common with covert abuse. If you’re struggling with getting close with partners. Or you’re only getting into relationships that involve intensity, it could be worth learning into your past. Just because you experience these types of relationships doesn’t mean that you’ve dealt with covert abuse. However, it could be a source of the problems that you’re having with romance, passion, and connection.

I’ve also worked with many men who will struggle with random, extreme frustration that seems to “come out of nowhere.” This is often when their internal boundary systems are feeling crossed.

How do you fix this?

The first step to fixing anything is identifying it for what it was. In order to change boundary systems, you have to be able to identify where lines were crossed. This will help you become more mindful about what you’re experiencing in your current relationships.

I recommend that you slow down in your current relationship interactions and give yourself time and space as needed. When you’re responding to past abuse, you’re at risk of becoming reactive to situations. You need to give yourself time and space to become grounded, so that you can deal with your partner in the present. This can take a lot of practice.

You’ll also need to learn to offer yourself the care-taking that you missed out on as a child. Learn to support yourself emotionally, and validate your right to boundaries.

It may also be important to find a trauma therapist to help you navigate through your past if you continue to get stuck.


If you’re looking for a therapist to help with sexual abuse, please feel free to contact us today.


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