Being a victim of sexual abuse can have a devastating effect on a child’s object relations, particularly the ability to trust other people. In intrafamilial sexual abuse, the impact may be pervasive because a caretaker, who should be a protector and a limit-setter, exploits the child and violates the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Furthermore, this damage may be exacerbated by an unsupportive, non-offending parent. Moreover, sexual abuse may not be the only way in which the child’s trust is undermined. The victim may experience other maltreatment or traumatic experiences in the family.

However, children sexually molested outside the home may also experience problems with trust. This may come about because the person who victimizes the child is someone to whom the child has been entrusted by the parents, as happens, for example, when the abuser is a childcare provider. These victims frequently perceive their parents as having given permission for the exploitation. Alternatively, the offender may be a person in a position of authority over the child and she/he feels compelled to comply. Then children may have considerable difficulty trusting persons in positions of authority in the future.

The challenge to the therapist is to create circumstances in which the child has positive experiences with trustworthy adults in order to ameliorate the damage to the child’s ability to trust. This may involve rehabilitating the parents and/or creating opportunities for appropriate relationships with adults, for example, with foster parents, mentors, or other relatives. An admonition to therapists is that they must be honest and dependable in order to create an atmosphere of trust.


Emotional Reactions To Sexual Abuse

Three common emotional consequences of sexual victimization are a sense of somehow being responsible and therefore feeling guilty, an altered sense of self and self-esteem because of involvement in sexual abuse, and fears and anxiety.

  1. Feeling responsible. An offender may make the victim feel responsible for the sexual abuse, for the offender’s well being, and/or for the consequences of disclosure. Victims may also feel guilty for not having stopped the sexual abuse as well as for any positive aspects of the abuse, such as physical pleasure, the special attention given by the offender, or an opportunity to have control over other family members because of “the secret.”

    The role of the clinician is to help the child understand intellectually and accept emotionally that the child was not responsible. The adult sexually abused the child; the child did not sexually abuse the adult. It was the adult’s job – not the child’s – to stop or prevent the abuse.

  2. Altered sense of self. Guilty feelings as well as the invasive and intrusive nature of the sexual activity impact negatively on the child’s sense of self and self-esteem. As Suzanne Sgroi puts it, victims suffer from “damaged goods” syndrome. The effect is both physical, in that children have an altered sense of their bodies, and psychological, in that children may see themselves as markedly different from their peers.

    The task of the therapist is to make victims feel whole and good about themselves again. Work, mentioned above, that addresses the issue of self-blame is helpful. However, so are interventions that help children view themselves as more than merely victims of sexual abuse. Normalizing and ego-enhancing activities, such as doing well in school, participating in sports, getting involved in scouts, or helping a younger victim, can be very important in victim recovery.

  3. Anxiety and fear to be discussed here are related to the traumatic impact of the abuse per se on the child rather than environmental responses to it. The victim develops phobic reactions to the event, the offender, and to other aspects of the abuse. Experiences that evoke recollections of the abuse come to elicit anxiety. In some children this anxiety and phobias become pervasive and crippling because of the level of avoidance they engage in to reduce their stress.

    Before treating the child’s fears and anxiety, the therapist must be sure the child is not being sexually abused or at risk for sexual abuse. Then the therapist engages the victim in a series of interventions that allow her/him to gradually deal with the abuse and related phobias and anxiety in ways that usually avoid excessive stress and allow mastery. These may include discussions, play therapy, or interventions in the child’s environment. For example, the victim may be encouraged to ventilate by talking about the abuse and accompanying feelings, thereby reducing the level of distress related to it. Similarly, a child who is phobic about being left with a babysitter may be left with a relative first for short and then longer time periods, then with a babysitter for brief and then longer periods and thereby be desensitized to babysitting situations.

  • Additional emotional reactions may be found. Depending on the circumstances of the victimization and the child’s personality, she/he may react with regression, anger, depression, revulsion, or posttraumatic stress disorder to sexual abuse. These emotional reactions are likely to manifest themselves in problematic behaviors. These behaviors will be discussed in the next section.


Behavioral Reactions To Sexual Abuse

As suggested in the second chapter, behavioral effects of sexual abuse can include sexualized behavior and other behavior problems.

  • Sexualized behavior. A serious reaction is sexualized behavior. Children who have been sexually victimized may masturbate excessively and openly or sexually interact with other people. Every act of sexualized behavior has the potential for increasing the probability of future acts. Not only is the activity likely to be physically pleasurable, but it may also enhance the child’s view of her/himself as a sexually acting out person. Such acts may also stigmatize the child, which has a negative impact on the child’s sense of self.
    Clinicians should work to diminish and/or eliminate sexualized behavior through teaching behavioral controls. Sexual acting out may be controlled, for example, by teaching the child to masturbate privately. Behavior management techniques, which can involve rewarding “sex-free” days and using “time-out” for sexual acting out, can be taught to the child’s caretaker. In addition, the child’s energies that might have gone into sexual behavior can be channeled into more age-appropriate activities by having a caretaker monitor the child, interrupt any sexual acting out, and provide opportunities for positive alternative behaviors. These interventions are conducted with the child’s caretaker and/or in dyadic work with child and caretaker.
    One of the reasons treatment of sexualized behavior is so essential is because of a recently recognized phenomenon called the victim to offender cycle. Both male and female victims are at risk for this problem. Many offenders begin as victims, whose response to sexual abuse is to identify with the aggressor and to sexually act out in order to cope with their own sense of vulnerability and trauma. Professionals must recognize the potential danger of allowing sexualized behavior to go untreated, which is that the child then is at risk for becoming first an adolescent offender and eventually an adult offender. The child not only damages him/herself, but also may cause grave harm to many other children over the course of time.
  • Other behavior problems. Other behavioral reactions to sexual abuse include such problems as aggression toward people and animals, running away, self-harm (cutting or burning), criminal activity, substance abuse, suicidal behavior, hyperactivity, sleep problems, eating problems, and toileting problems.
    Some of these problems, for example, difficulties with sleep, eating, toileting, and being alone, may be acute after disclosure but diminish over time and eventually disappear. Short-term intervention, labeling the behavioral problems as common reactions, and helping the victim resolve the underlying emotional or cognitive issues is generally helpful. Parents are encouraged to be understanding.
    Treatment strategies for all behavioral problems include helping the victim understand the relationship between the behaviors and the sexual abuse and emotional or cognitive reactions to it; helping the child develop insight into the self-destructive nature of some of these behaviors; assisting the victim in more appropriate expression of the emotions, for example, anger; and behavioral interventions to diminish and eliminate problematic behavior. With older children, group therapy is usually very useful in addressing these problems.


Cognitive Reactions To Sexual Abuse

An important part of treatment of victims of sexual abuse is to help them understand the meaning of the abuse. This includes learning what appropriate and inappropriate touching entails; what is wrong about sexual activity between adults and children, if they do not know this; why adults or a particular adult was sexual with them; and in some cases, why they were chosen as targets and what that means to them. How these issues are addressed will vary with the child’s developmental stage. They may be more adequately dealt with in group treatment than individual therapy, and sometimes having the offender take full responsibility for the abuse in dyadic therapy with the victim is useful.

Moreover, an adequate explanation for a child at a young age may not be sufficient as she/he grows older. Thus, this particular issue will need to be addressed at a more sophisticated level as the child matures. This may be done by a parent but in some cases will need to be done by a therapist.


Protection From Future Victimization

Treatment of victimized children needs to include strategies for future protection. Teaching children to say no and tell someone may be useful, especially if the material is presented in a group setting and there are opportunities to role-play resisting sexual advances. Specific protective strategies involving family members and helping professionals need to be developed in intrafamilial sexual abuse situations. Additionally, the therapist must appreciate that placing even partial responsibility for self-protection on the victim is potentially an overwhelming burden.


Sections on this page have been adapted from: TheMamaBearEffect.



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