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Responding to Sexual Abuse: The Keys to Healing and Thriving

Sexual abuse shatters and disrupts the core of a person’s sense of safety, self and worth.  The damage inflicted can influence every aspect of a person’s existence. Because sexual abuse attacks the body and soul of the victim, it can cause shame, depression, disconnection from one’s own body, distrust in others, tumultuous relationships, addiction and eating disorders.   

At the same time, human beings are amazingly resilient.  Children who are abused by the same person in the same ways may grow up and turn out very differently.  An abuse survivor may into a drug addict or she may turn into Oprah Winfrey. 

Many variables determine the course of one’s life after sexual abuse.  How a victim copes may depend upon the relationship to the abuser, the frequency of the abuse, the nature of the abuse (from inappropriate touching to penetration), the stage of development of the victim, and whether physical force was used or other insidious forms of emotional manipulation. 

In my practice, I often work with adults who experienced sexual abuse as children or teens.  They typically show up for help dealing with other problems: depression, eating disorders, marital infidelity, addiction or trust issues.  It can take months or even years before an abuse history is uncovered.   When the story does come out, it is not uncommon to hear that the adults in their lives handled things worse than poorly.  In fact, their response to the abuse often compounded and deepened the damage.

  • Sherri’s mother not only didn’t believe her when she said that her step-father had molested her; her mother stayed married to him. “I had to just shut up and deal with it if I wanted to be part of the family.”

  • When Catherine’s mother discovered that Catherine had been abused by an older cousin, she beat her daughter for “bringing shame on the family.” At the time Catherine was seven years old.

  • Ashley’s mother was well aware that her husband was raping their daughters.  Even after he’d been incarcerated multiple times for these crimes, her mother continued to take him back, setting up Ashley and her sisters for more abuse.  

These stories may seem extreme, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.  Because of their family members’ denial, narcissism, or mental health issues, these women were shown not only that the abuse didn’t matter but that THEY didn’t matter.  It’s no wonder that they have suffered from poor self-image, tumultuous relationships, addictions, self-harm and eating disorders.  

These days we know more about brain development, reaction to trauma and ways to help victims of abuse recover. We are better equipped to shore up the resilience of a victim and increase the likelihood of a positive outcome in their life, if we handle things correctly.  

In the case where adults discover that a child or teen has been abused, there are several important steps that may help ensure the best possible result for the victim: 

  1. Adults need to believe the child who shares a story of abuse.

  2. The adult must protect the child from any future incidents of abuse by physically removing the perpetrator from the child’s life and/or taking legal action.

  3. The victim must be told (sometimes over and over) that in NO WAY was the abuse their fault and that it was 100 percent the perpetrator’s fault (despite what the abuser may have told her).

  4. The child needs permission to experience and express his or her feelings about the abuse (through crying, play therapy, art, poetry, journaling, self-defense, etc.).  The adults’ job is to help the child learn healthy and appropriate ways to do this.  

  5.  While making sure the child does not feel at fault, adults should help the victim develop a safety plan in order to empower him/her to feel safer in the future.

  6. The victim must be taught healthy ways to self-soothe (positive self-talk, relaxation, meditation, etc.) so she or he does not turn to addictive behaviors for comfort.

Even those survivors whose family members took all the WRONG steps can still heal as adults. Typically the path from victim to thriver involves a therapeutic intervention.  An excellent book that outlines the path of healing is Dr. Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery.  Herman describes a number of stages in the therapeutic process. 

Here is a brief overview: 

  • Healing Relationship: Since sexual abuse is a breach that occurs within a relationship, healing from the trauma must occur within a relationship (i.e. you can’t go off by yourself and “fix” your abuse!).  The unique boundaries of a therapeutic relationship (confidentiality, a predictable time and place, a focus on the client’s needs) can make it an ideal place for the survivor to start to heal.  

  • Safety: A client who has been abused might “test” the safety of the therapeutic relationship by pushing the boundaries.  If the therapist consistently holds onto the boundaries in a loving but firm way (unlike their parents who may have had rigid, harsh or no boundaries) then the client will start to feel safe.  They will need to believe that the therapist can “handle” their feelings without rejecting, dismissing or humiliating her.  This takes time.  Be patient. 

  • Remembrance and Mourning: When the safety of the relationship has been established (which may require months or years) then the client may go into more details about their story. They may tell stories from their life that they never thought they would share. Breaking the silence and telling the entire story is very empowering, especially if the perpetrator or the family imposed silence.  Long-buried feelings of shame, sadness and anger may be felt and expressed for the first time.  The therapist can help the client accept these feelings and start to look on the child who experienced the abuse with more compassion. Grieving the childhood that they wished they’d experienced is often part of the process. 

  • Reconnection: As the stories are told, feelings released and coping skills developed, the client will start to choose, create and build healthier relationships outside of the therapy office.

  • Commonality: The survivor will start to feel less alienated from the rest of the world, and they’ll experience greater connection to self, others and the web of life. 

Through this process, people can free themselves from the grip of their abuser and live a life with new meaning and purpose. They can integrate the story of abuse into the rest of their life story and put it in its proper perspective.

This therapeutic process can allow them to tap a surprising reserve of energy-- energy which used to be used repressing and numbing the memories and the pain.  Many who go through this recovery process discover creativity, productivity, generosity and even gratitude that they have never experienced before.

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