Each year there are numerous cases of childhood sexual abuse worldwide. Sad to say, it is not uncommon in St Vincent [and the Grenadines] as we have heard of such cases of abuse and assault taking place here. The question is therefore, how do we respond in such cases? How do we help the victims? Would these children ever get over their abuse?
Now while some persons may believe that these people grow up and never fully recover from the sexual abuse, many professionals believe that abuse survivors do “get over” their abuse. Adult survivors of child abuse do not necessarily show any dysfunction due to the abuse they experienced; it is believed that the earlier an abuse survivor deals with their abuse, the better their chance of a full recovery.
The two key components in recovering from sexual abuse are:
Dealing with the effects of sexual abuse; Preventing further abuse.
Depending on the situation, an abuse survivor may be focused more on one, the other, or both.
Issues for the Victims of Sexual Abuse:
In order to fully recover, survivors of child abuse must deal with many issues. It is only once these issues are faced that victims of sexual abuse can truly move on. The following are a few of the issues which should be dealt with urgently.
- Trust, including patterns in relationships.
- Emotional reactions to sexual abuse.
- Behavioral reactions to sexual abuse.
- Cognitive reactions to sexual abuse.
- Protection from future victimization.
The victims of sexual abuse experience a break in trust in many ways. Trust is broken not only by the abuser, but by those around the abused survivor as well. For example, the victim may feel betrayed by their family if the abuser is a family member or family friend, or they may feel a lack of trust with all people now concerned with their safety in all relationships. This trust can be repaired, however, by experiencing new, safe relationships often with the aid of therapy.
An emotional reaction to sexual abuse is absolutely normal but is something with which child sexual abuse survivors must deal. Victims of sexual abuse often feel:
- Responsible for the abuse and guilty about the abuse, even though it was not their fault.
- A damaged sense of self and self-esteem; feeling like “damaged goods”.
- Anxiety and fear around all aspects of the abuse.
- Both child and adult sexual abuse survivors can work through these emotions through therapy.
Behavioural reactions to sexual abuse are also normal and can be treated. A common behavioural reaction is overly sexualized behaviour. Victims of sexual abuse may dress and act overtly sexual, even if they are children. Sexualized behaviours affect a child’s life negatively and can increase the likelihood of future abuses. Other behavioural problems associated with sexual abuse include:
- Running away
- Self-harm (cutting or burning)
- Criminal activity
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal behaviour
- Sleeping / eating problems
- Toileting problems.
Behavioural reactions to sexual abuse can be overcome by sexual abuse survivors. Sometimes, though, it requires additional treatment if a behaviour has become overly problematic, such as in the case of substance abuse in adult survivors of child sexual abuse.
Survivors of Child Abuse – Am I Getting Better?
Consult this checklist as you assess your recovery process:
- I acknowledge that something terrible happened to me.
- I am beginning to deal with my feelings about the assault.
- I am angry about what was done to me but recognize that my anger is not a constant part of my feelings. It intrudes into other parts of my life in a negative way.
- I can talk about the assault experience with a counsellor or a therapist.
- I am beginning to understand my feelings about the assault.
- I can give responsibility for the assault to the person who attacked me. The responsibility is not mine to accept.
- I could not have prevented the assault, and I recognize that I did the best I could to get through it.
- I am developing a sense of my own self-value and am increasing my self-esteem.
- I am comfortable with choices I make for myself.
- I am developing a sense of being at ease with the subject of my assault.
- I recognize that I have a choice about whether or not to forgive my assailant(s).
- I recognize that I have begun to get back control in my life, that the assailant does not have power over me.
- I recognize that I have the right to regain control.
What can parents do?
Parents can prevent or lessen the chance of sexual abuse by:
- Telling children that if someone tries to touch your body and do things that make you feel funny, say NO to that person and tell me right away.
- Teaching children that respect does not mean blind obedience to adults and to authority, for example, don’t tell children to always do everything the teacher or baby-sitter tells you to do.
- Encouraging professional prevention programs in communities
Because of the possible devastating effects of child sexual abuse, sexually abused children and their families need immediate professional evaluation and treatment. Psychiatrists and psychologists who specialize in helping sexually abused children are particularly helpful. Professional help can help the child regain a sense of control over life and can help deal with the feelings of shame or guilt over the abuse. This help can begin the process of recovery from the trauma and prevent future problems.
Administration for Children and Families – Child Welfare Information Gateway, Definitions, Scope and Effects of Child Abuse: http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/sexabuse/sexabuseb.cfm