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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.
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.
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.
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.
Behavioral Reactions To Sexual Abuse
As suggested in the second chapter, behavioral effects of sexual abuse can include sexualized behavior and other behavior 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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