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Treating Adolescent Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse; it is not a topic that makes people comfortable. Discussing child sexual abuse, in fact, remains taboo even in this era of increasing openness about personal or family difficulties. While most Americans can understand, although not condone, how some forms of child abuse occur, it is almost impossible for them to consider the idea of sexual abuse. This is particularly true when the abuser is a parent or family member.

Sexual abuse fuses those areas in which most people still experience discomfort: sexuality, power, gender domination, and the horrific exploitation of an innocent child. Sexual molestation, like so many forms of abuse, wounds not only its victim: it cuts through families and communities, destroying trust and the belief that some things simply do not happen in an enlightened society.

And yet they do. Almost 1 million children were identified as victims of substantiated or indicated abuse or neglect in 1996, according to the Office of Child Abuse and Neglect (formerly the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). About 12 percent of these children were sexually abused. The figures, of course, include only those incidents of abuse that were reported to, and investigated by, child protection agencies.

Despite these numbers, the Nation lives in denial. The results of this country's refusal to confront the sexual molestation of children are staggering. These include gaps in services to young survivors, little research into the effects of sexual abuse, inadequate technical assistance on effective approaches to supporting youth who have been sexually abused or intervening with their families, and few therapists trained to provide appropriate services. The limited intervention and support typically given to youth survivors is compounded by the fact that they must deal with their trauma in a society that is reluctant to acknowledge that child sexual abuse even occurs.

Denial is a costly tactic:

  • The research shows that victims often become victimizers.
  • Victims seek comfort in behaviors, such as alcohol or drug abuse, that have consequences for the larger community.
  • Severely wounded children sometimes grow up to be violently aggressive adults.

Moreover, a Nation is judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable populations, and to ignore the victimization of children is unacceptable.

Talking About the Unthinkable

Twenty years ago, no one wanted to admit that men beat their wives. Domestic violence was unthinkable, especially in affluent neighborhoods. Today, people know that domestic violence occurs in families across the spectrum of racial groups, and education and income levels. Society's perception of, and response to, domestic violence was changed by battered women's advocates who continued to talk about violence in the home, even when those around them wished they would stop.

Today, that education process must continue. Violence in the home includes sexual violence. And just as with domestic violence, the effects are intergenerational. Clearly, preventing the sexual abuse of future generations by treating the victims of today should be a priority. A key strategy for doing so is to implement a youth development approach that ensures services and opportunities for all youth, that builds on young people's strengths, and that provides support for youth whose developmental process has been delayed by abuse and neglect. Young people who have been sexually abused, especially by a trusted adult, suffer damage to almost every aspect of their personal development: sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual.

Child Sexual Abuse: The Impact on Adolescent Development

Our culture demands that children mature from an egocentric to a sociocentric focus. They are expected to participate in school, become involved in the community, and develop relationships outside their families. This is a challenging process even for the average young person; living with abuse makes the process incredibly difficult. During adolescence, youth are growing and changing in a range of ways that are affected by sexual abuse:

  • Physiological Change: How tall they are or how much they weigh becomes a source of concern to young people during adolescence, particularly as they compare themselves with their peers. That comparison may produce feelings of anxiety or contribute to dampening their self-esteem. For youth who have experienced abuse or criticism by their parents, teasing about their looks may reinforce their perception that they are not valued.
  • Emotional Development: Young people in abusive situations must redirect their energy from emotional development to survival. When they are forced to focus on avoiding the violent or sexual advances of an adult caretaker, they do not make the same developmental progress as children who receive unconditional love, support, and guidance.
  • Cognitive Change: Young people develop their cognitive thinking ability, which means that they will reexperience and reframe abuse that occurred to them earlier, particularly if it began when they were young.
  • Moral and Spiritual Development: During adolescence, youth begin to question the meaning of life and specifically to think about the larger world, the role they play in it, and the options and opportunities available to them.
  • Sexual Development: For some young people, it is during adolescence that the real consequences of being sexually abused occur. When a child of 3 or 4 years of age is sexually abused, it is not a sexual event in the way adults may think. It is physically hurtful, confusing, and alarming, but they do not have a context for defining the abuse. When those children turn 12 or 13, they cognitively reassess the abuse as they begin to learn about or experience sexual feelings.

While all young people's development is affected by both internal and external factors, each youth experiences growing up differently. For youth who are abused, however, that process is negatively affected, resulting in certain reactions or behaviors.

The Abused Adolescent

While there is no clear profile of a sexually abused child, the research indicates that there are symptoms that present frequently in young survivors. These include the following:

  • Anxiety/Numbing: Young people who have been sexually abused often exhibit the polarity of anxiety/numbing behaviors. These youth are hypervigilant, scanning the environment for threats to their safety; conversely they have learned to shut down their feelings.

    The chronicity of the abuse plays a part in the level of anxiety experienced by child victims. Youth who have been assaulted through most of their developmental phases have learned to maintain a defensive posture to protect themselves. They have learned the most debilitating lesson of child abuse: people who love you hurt you. For these children, the expression of caring is presumed to be followed by harm or danger.

    At the end of 4 months of therapy, 6-year-old "Katie," for example, brought a paddle to her therapist. When the therapist asked about the paddle, Katie said, "It is for you to hit me with." When the therapist asked why Katie thought she wanted to hit her, the child replied, "Well you like me, don't you?"

    The sad reality is that children seek out behaviors with which they are familiar. In some instances, children do so to master or take control of situations, thereby reducing their anxiety about what might happen next.

  • Hypersensitivity: Young people growing up in violent or abusive environments tend to be hypersensitive to their surroundings. They flinch at sudden noises and are hyperaroused or overstimulated easily. They may experience acute fear in some situations and typically "stay on alert," which requires energy and takes a tremendous toll on their physical and mental well-being. They tend to carry a lot of tension in their bodies, so they may not move as fluidly as other children. Many of these youth present somatic concerns, such as always having headaches or stomach pains.

    Again, the chronicity of the abuse is an important factor in the degree to which young people develop hypersensitivity. If the abuse is an isolated incident, the child is better able to regroup. When the assault is frequent or long term, the child does not have respite to reorganize or stabilize and must develop highly refined defense mechanisms.

  • Depression: Even the youngest children who have been abused exhibit characteristics of depression. They may have a flat affect, not make eye contact, or not laugh. There are many manifestations of depression, including self-mutilation, substance abuse, and eating or sleeping disorders.

    The foster parents of a 9-year-old boy reported that he would cut himself and watch the blood run down his arm. A therapist asked what he said to himself when he watched the blood, and the youth replied, "It's red." She asked what he expected to see, and he replied, "guck." Through further questioning, the therapist learned that the boy expected guck to come out of his arm like the bionic man on television.

    This boy thought of himself as a robot, which is a strong defense mechanism against being hurt. When he saw the blood, he actually felt better because he could say, "I'm a real human being." For the next 3 weeks, he would be more interactive, responsive, and happy because he had verified his own existence.

  • Alcohol or Drug Use: While some young people may experiment with drugs or alcohol as a rite of passage, youth who were or are abused use substances to numb their feelings.

    The alcoholism of one 6-year-old child was discovered when her preschool reported unusual behaviors to her foster family. The child was given a medical examination, through which the doctors determined that she had been sexually abused.

    She was referred to a therapist who used play therapy. The child would pick the play therapy rag doll up and roll its head back and forth, put one foot in front of the other, as if the doll were walking, and then make it fall. She repeated the sequence 14 times.

    After watching this behavior, the therapist wondered if the child was acting out the behavior of someone who had been drinking. The therapist brought in a small bottle of liquor, the type you get on an airplane, and waved the open bottle under the child's nose, asking if she had ever smelled the odor before. The child grabbed the bottle and tried to drink its contents. Through further questioning, the therapist learned that the child kept a bottle of vodka she had smuggled from her home to the foster residence inside the zipper pouch of a stuffed animal. It turned out that the child's father had given her alcohol in a bottle so that she would relax and go to sleep while he sexually molested her. The child learned that when she drank, she could go to sleep and have the experience of not being "present" while the abuse occurred.

  • Problem Sexual Behaviors: Children who were sexually abused may become involved in sexual acting-out behaviors, particularly when they reach adolescence, a time of increasing biological urges and exposure to sexual education. Under normal conditions, sexual behavior develops gradually over time, with youth showing curiosity and then experimenting with themselves and others. When children are sexually abused, however, they are prematurely exposed to material they do not understand and cannot make sense of.

    Moreover, children become conditioned to respond to certain things. In many instances, adults who interact sexually with children may reward them before or after the event. The children are conditioned to believe that if they engage in certain behaviors they will be rewarded. This is pure learning theory: children repeat acts for which they receive positive reinforcement.

    A judge who was doubting the sexual abuse of a 3-year-old child called everyone into his chambers and hoisted the young girl on his lap so that he could interview her. The moment he placed her on his lap, she reached under his robe and began fondling his genitals. She clearly had been conditioned to believe that when a man sits her on his lap, he expects this type of behavior. The judge quickly reversed his opinion and went forward with the case of sexual abuse.

    Some children who were sexually abused also may become sexually provocative, dressing and talking in a manner that puts them at risk of further sexual exploitation. Others merge sexual behavior and aggression and become the victimizers of other children.

  • Aggression: Eventually, most abused children get angry and some begin to act aggressively, typically with smaller children. This is the victim-victimizer dynamic; abused children learn that the bigger, stronger person hurts or takes advantage of the smaller, weaker person. Youth who have been victimized are conditioned to believe that when two people interact, one of them will be hurt. At each interaction with others, they may wonder who will be hurt this time. Some children adopt the victim role; others become the victimizers. In either case, they simply are playing out the roles that they have been conditioned to believe people play during interactions with others.

    The research would indicate that boys tend to adopt the role of aggressor more often than girls. They have a harder time tolerating the role of victim, which is in stark contrast to the cultural definition of masculinity. Girls tend to adopt the role of victim more often, which could be linked to the traditional social view of women as the weaker gender. Yet neither pattern holds true in all cases. Some boys take on the victim role; some girls become aggressive.

Obviously, these behaviors and reactions are learned. Young people who have survived sexual abuse can just as easily learn more positive behaviors if communities choose to provide them with appropriate interventions and support. They need support in both working through the trauma and addressing the developmental stages they may have missed because of the abuse. This includes the critical step of developing an identity separate from their family or caretaker.

Identity Formation in Adolescence

Forming an identity is a major developmental issue during adolescence. This process of individuation, however, is one that begins when children are very young and crystallizes in adolescence. For positive identity formation to occur in any human being, some basic things have to be attained, including the following:

  • Expressions of Love: Children have to feel that somebody cares about them.
  • Feelings of Significance: Children must feel that they are significant or important to someone.
  • A Sense of Virtue: Children must have a belief in their innate, inner goodness.
  • A Sense of Belonging: Children must feel connected to a family that provides them with a sense of stable belonging.
  • Mastery and Control: Children must experience feelings of mastery and personal power and control.

All of these variables are severely compromised by child abuse and neglect. Abused children's sense of self and their future has been badly damaged. They may have learned that negative attention is better than no attention, and they act accordingly. Unfortunately, their behaviors, which result directly from the abuse, often lead significant people in their lives to react in ways that reinforce this negative self-image. This further damages young people's sense of virtue and feeling of being loved.

To deal with these overwhelmingly negative feelings, some children develop an affect disorder, which results from a person compartmentalizing information about an abusive event separately from their feelings. They will describe an abusive event in great detail without emotion, as if it were happening to someone else. This dissociation is a defense mechanism that helps people block reality, especially when it is painful. Children who are being sexually abused use dissociation to separate from their own experiences. They talk about floating above their bodies or sitting on top of a lamp watching what happened.

This process enables a young person not to feel the pain associated with actually being present during the abusive event. Unfortunately, dissociation also creates a problem with a child's sense of identity and interrupts their sense of being anchored in reality.

Children who have an identity problem or no sense of who they are may, for example, develop an insecure attachment disorder. Therapists experience this with young people who ask to see them every day or to come live with them. These young people do not feel real unless they are in another person's presence. Or they fear that the person they are with now will go away and not come back, leading to feelings of abandonment and despair.

When children are not allowed to develop an identity, they may appear as if they are presenting a "false self." These youth simply may not have a good sense of self to present to the world. When with other groups of people, especially other youth with strong personalities, abused children may easily retreat into themselves or mimic those they are around. Helping young people go back through the developmental stages and rebuild a sense of self is critical to their overall emotional well-being.

Treating the Sexually Abused Adolescent

Therapists have identified three stages to working with survivors of childhood abuse:

  • establishing the young person's safety, both in their home situation and with the therapist;
  • processing traumatic material; and
  • fostering social reconnection.
  • One of a therapist's most important tasks is to ensure that a child is living in a safe environment with a central, supportive, caring adult. Often, young people who have been abused or neglected experience incredible mobility in their lives as they move from one placement to the next. These youth begin to doubt that any adult will be with them for very long. A sense of security and safety in one place, therefore, is very important to the therapeutic process.

    Once the child is in a safe environment, the therapist can begin to develop a relationship with the child. Through that relationship, the therapist can begin to help the child understand why it is important to process what happened to them. Most abused adolescents want a sense of control over their lives. Therapists can show youth how, by working through their earlier experience, they can eliminate some of their negative feelings and the resulting behaviors. Through that process, youth can develop a sense of control over their behavior.

    When a young person is ready, the therapist can help them begin affiliating with others and developing the ability to trust and have relationships with other people, both adults and peers. Often at this stage, a therapist will place a youth in group therapy.

    Time and consistency of care are key factors in all three stages of therapy, but especially in stage 1. By the time an adolescent receives the help they deserve, they may have been sexually or otherwise abused over a period of time. They have built up an array of defenses to protect themselves, and making contact with them may be difficult. To establish the trust of an abused child, a therapist needs to build a relationship with that child, which takes time. Therapists need that time to demonstrate that they are trustworthy, by action as well as words.

    In some communities, the new managed care systems are threatening this process by covering the costs of only short-term therapy. The trust of a severely abused child simply cannot be established in six to eight sessions. Under those circumstances, experts caution that therapists should work only on phase 1, or the establishment of the child's safety. It is inappropriate to encourage a child to talk about traumatic abuse if that child is not in a position to receive ongoing therapeutic support.

    In such situations, a therapist must simply advocate for children's safe placement and help them to develop coping strategies, teach them about available resources, and suggest behavioral alternatives that may positively affect their interactions with others. A therapist also might help children understand that their behavioral problems may be related to something they learned or experienced a long time ago.

    General Principles for Working With Youth Who Have Been Sexually Abused

    Helping youth explore past abuse is specialized work, requiring significant education, training, and expertise. The following key principles provide guidance for those working with youth who have been sexually abused:

    • Remain Neutral In Your Early Interactions With Abused Children: When some youth sense that a therapist or other professional is paying attention to or trying to help them, they may withdraw because the circumstances feel risky to them. The very nature of counseling or therapy, which involves personal contact with another human being and focused, positive attention, can produce stress and anxiety for children who have been sexually abused. Youth who have been sexually abused also may associate nice behavior with seduction. In the past, people were nice to them when they wanted something. They may wonder what therapists or other adults expect from them in return for their help.
    • Assist Youth In Understanding That They Are Not To Blame: Typically, left to their own resources, children make incorrect assumptions about why they were abused or neglected. When 100 youth in San Francisco were asked why they were in the foster care system, 98 of them said, "Because I am bad." And young people's behavior often reflects how they feel about themselves. If they think they are bad, they may act in ways that perpetuate that image.
    • Be Nonjudgmental: Youth do not respond well to adults who want to tell them what to do or who are constantly critical.
    • Catch Youth Doing Something Good: Focus on telling young people what they are doing that is good. When they make a thoughtful decision and stick to it, for example, congratulate them on following through.
    • Help Them View Their Feelings Without Judgment: Feelings are not good or bad, they are just feelings. Help young people understand that it is all right to feel angry, and help them to learn to express their anger in ways that are healthy for themselves and others.
    • Think Of Your Interactions With Youth As "Invitations" For Them To Do Or Say As Much Or As Little As They Choose: Youth need to learn to make choices about how they will participate, or not, in different situations. Offering youth options gives them a chance to practice making choices in a safe environment. If a young person does not complete an assignment, for example, consider talking with him or her about what the assignment might have looked like if they had finished it. Or, discuss what might have been the biggest problem in completing the task. Through this process, you might accomplish more than if you focus on the young person's failure to complete the task.
    • Avoid Power Struggles With Young People: It generally is nonproductive to spend time arguing a point with an adolescent. Move on to other discussions that might prove more useful. Keep in mind that if a young person is feeling defensive, they are not feeling safe.
    • Remember That Abused Adolescents Have A Reason To Be Defensive: If you are hit enough, emotionally or physically, you learn to stand ready to protect yourself or even to ward off attacks by attacking first. Young people who have been abused need time and a trusted relationship to feel safe.
    • Understand How Easy It Is For Abused Children To Be Further Victimized: Without question, once abused, children become more vulnerable to further victimization. It is not just the abuse that leaves them exposed to exploitation; it is the concomitant loss of love, nurturing, and feelings of being safe and valued. Often adult predators provide, at least at first, the very things missing from an abused child's history: time, attention, caring, and a sense of belonging.
    • Be Aware That Some Behaviors Provide Youth With A Sense Of Control: When children are treated well, nurtured, loved, and accepted, they learn to expect that treatment from others. When children are abused, they similarly expect others will abuse them. These children may engage in aggressive behavior as a defense mechanism; their behavior is a means of taking control of a situation they anticipate will occur anyway. When you work with youth to stop behaviors that place them at risk, it is important to be aware that those behaviors may be the only current means they have for mastery and control.
    • Help Educate Others That Young People Are Never Responsible For Their Abuse: Often, people suggest that adolescents should have told someone or fought back. The expectation is that adolescents should be able to protect themselves. It is important to remember that many young people have long histories of abuse, which makes them vulnerable; they are not "normal" (nonabused) adolescents suddenly confronted with dangerous circumstances. Moreover, it is critical to remember that children are relating to their parents, the people they love and need most in the world. When asked, "Who is bad, you or your Mom and Dad?" children will always choose themselves. Children need to protect the idealized image of their parents; those are the people they long for.

    Working with youth who have been sexually abused obviously requires special skills and expertise. For that reason, most youth agencies develop strong working relationships with therapists who are experienced in working with youth who have been sexually abused. In selecting a therapist, youth agencies should look for well-trained professionals who understand and apply the above-mentioned principles. They also should look for therapists who do the following:

    • Use Therapeutic Approaches Other Than Talk Therapy: Direct talk therapy generally is not the most effective approach with adolescents. Well-trained therapists will use art or play therapy in working with abused youth. They also might discuss news clippings or watch a video and let youth comment on another young person's situation. It may be easier for youth to talk about another person as a means of sharing how they feel. Moreover, helping young people develop empathy for others often can be the first step in developing self-empathy.
    • Help Youth Change Behaviors That Cause Negative Reactions In Others: Therapists examine a child's behavior, describe it, and then try to determine why the child is acting in this manner. A 12-year-old girl, for example, who threw temper tantrums explained that she felt quiet inside when the tantrum was over. She said she felt calm because "everything inside had come out." This child had been beaten whenever she showed any emotion, so she had learned to keep her feelings bottled up inside.

      Every now and then, however, she had to let those feelings go. Until she entered therapy, the child had never been taught how to live with and manage real feelings; the result was tension, control, and then loss of control. Her therapist worked with her, using a tea kettle as a metaphor. They jointly developed a plan for the young woman to begin to let her "steam" out in ways that would not cause concern among the people around her or allow the kettle to "blow its lid." Through the process, the young girl learned affect tolerance: the ability to feel, absorb, and express her feelings appropriately.

    • Appreciate That Children Sustain Injuries Differently: Some young people are more resilient than others. A therapist needs to assess how well the young person has survived the abuse, what they think about themselves, and how they manage to reach out to others. Through this process, it is important to help the youth build a history of accomplishment by emphasizing the young person's strengths and successes.
    • Help Youth Process Traumatic Material: Young people need support to deal with what happened to them, discharge their feelings, and develop a sense of mastery about that process. Unless this happens, images similar to those associated with the abusive event may trigger a posttraumatic stress reaction. A youth may blow up or go into trancelike behavior for no apparent reason. This is an indication that they have unresolved traumatic material and they need help in processing that material in a structured way that creates feelings of empowerment.
    • Work With Youth To Assimilate The Information And Feelings Associated With Their Prior Abuse: By processing traumatic material, therapists can help youth talk about the event and feel the associated feelings at the same time.
    • Recognize That While Abuse And Neglect Have The Potential To Be Traumatic, Not Every Abused Child Is Traumatized: Traumatized children are a subset of abused children. Factors that distinguish the two groups tend to include the child's relationship to the abuser, age at the onset of abuse, and biology, and the chronicity and severity of the abuse. All abused children are hurt and exploited, but, depending on a broad set of variables, some children continue to live in the climate of the trauma.
    • Help Youth Learn How To Manage Their Feelings In Settings In Which It Would Not Be Appropriate To Act Upon Them: Some youth need to learn affect regulation, which is the ability to control feelings in certain situations. Adults, for example, who had a fight with a spouse prior to making a presentation at work are able to refocus themselves. They are able to control the feelings they are experiencing as a result of the fight while they make the presentation.
    • Work With Youth To Develop Impulse Control: Children growing up with abusive parents did not have impulse control modeled for them. Many abusive parents think and act at the same time; when they are angry, they strike their children. Nonabusive parents also get angry at their children; they simply have the impulse control not to act on every thought. Children who grew up with abusive parents may need to learn that thoughts and action can be distant on the time spectrum. They need help in determining how to go through a series of steps to make decisions about what they will do in response to their thoughts.
    • Accept That All Children Are Different: Some children act out in ways that continue the climate of trauma through behavioral reenactments that keep the victim dynamic present in their life. Others want to talk constantly about the abuse and will do so even with strangers. Still other youth refuse to talk about the abuse; they say it is over and they do not want to deal with it. A good therapist will develop a plan for working with a young person on the basis of that child's behavior, presenting problems, personality