Creating an Effective Response to Child Sexual Abuse

Over the past 30 years, I have worked with children that have been sexually abused. I wish I could say I have seen fewer cases as we try and educate the public to signs and symptoms of this issue. However, that would not be true. Most people still don't think it could happen to them or to their children. When statistics show 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys will report an incident of childhood sexual abuse, the odds are pretty staggering. As a parent, our job is to protect our child so we try and educate them to "not talk to strangers", tell a parent if they feel uncomfortable around someone, etc. How do you tell your child not to trust the neighbors, sports coach, pastor, teacher, and parent! About 90% of children know their abusers with 30% being family members.

With such horrific statistics, is there any hope? Can children get better, survive, and move on with their lives? The answer is yes-with help! Hopefully the more educated, better trained and child friendly the staff, teachers, social service workers, clinicians and most importantly, parents become with a child's report of alleged sexual abuse, the better the prognosis for a child. From the onset of the report and our responses, both verbal and nonverbal, our communication to a child could be the beginning of the healing process. If a child feels that they are believed, they are not guilty for the abuse, they aren't "broken or damaged" and there is hope in the future, these are all success factors for a child that has made a sexual allegation.

Sexually abused children require specific treatment. Always make sure to have a child trained therapist. A child must feel validated, comfortable with the therapist in order to form a relationship, and to trust them with some very specific and often embarrassing information. The job of a therapist is not to investigate whether the abuse occurred, but rather to provide a safe and nurturing environment for a child to provide reliable information as they are able. Child therapists understand child development, how to interact with different age groups, and what is normal development. A child therapist will know how to ask a child questions related to the abuse in a way that is age appropriate.

Of course, the involvement of the caretakers is critical in treating children that have been sexually abused. Many caretakers feel the child has been through so much they will allow regular household rules to be broken. Caretakers feel that the child doesn't need additional stress by expecting them to perform their daily chores/ routines. However, that is often exactly what the child needs. A sexually abused child already feels different from other kids, distrustful of adult figures, distracted and unfocused. Providing a child with expectations, encouraging as much normalcy and structure as possible prevents other aspects of the child's life from feeling out of control.

Parents/caregivers have the most important job of all during this critical period in a child's life. They are the people that the child looks to for comfort, security, appropriate boundaries and encouragement through the process of healing. A child may have many individuals he/she has to report the abuse. The way the first individual responds will impact whether that child moves forward in his/her recovery. It is important for caregivers/parents to sometimes just listen, not to make judgments, not to step in and fill in the blanks when a child pauses or feels uncomfortable. The job of parents/caregivers is not an investigative role, but rather to have that child know that you feel comfortable with the topic if it arises, and if not that you will find appropriate individuals that will answer questions.

Children are observing their parents/caregivers, therapist, investigators, attorneys, etc. who are hearing their reports to see how they respond. Many children have reported that the adult looks too sad or they can't handle it so they stop providing information or minimize the details to protect the adult. Parents are not therapists. That is not their role. Therapists that are trained to deal with this particular population are specifically experienced and knowledgeable in providing quality treatment to sexually abused children. Parents/caregivers provide the love and nurturing and that is the one constant in the healing process. Child sexual abuse is a trauma, but one that can be treated! A child does not have to remain a victim. A child can become strong, empowered and in control of their bodies! A child can be a survivor-not a victim!

Sarah Heard, LCSW is a Clinical Associate with Family Guidance Centers. She provides individual, child/adolescent, family, and marital therapy. She can be reached at 804-743-0960 or can be emailed at contact@familyguidancecenters.com.