Mateo (not his real name) sat on the floor in my office playroom. Each week in therapy, he routinely played with a small plastic doll and every time, without fail, he placed objects in the doll’s mouth. This day, however, he did something more aggressive. His eyes wide and his face full of rage, he took a Tinker Toy, an apparent phallic symbol, and repeatedly jammed it into the doll’s mouth. “He doesn’t want it in his mouth,” Mateo said into the air, “but he’s going to get it in there anyway!”
A male babysitter had sexually violated Mateo several months earlier. I’m confident, in part based on Mateo’s playroom behavior, that the babysitter had forced himself into Mateo’s mouth. Fellatio wasn’t the only violation forced upon Mateo, but it was the most brutal. Recovery for Mateo would take months.
Those sessions occurred more than 25 years ago. Mateo was one of the first seriously abused children to enter my private practice, and I’ve never forgotten him. Unfortunately, he represents only one in a very long line of abused children I have seen over a nearly three-decade career. In some ways, each child is different, responds to abuse differently and progresses at her or his own pace, but the stages of counseling with this population generally are predictable.
Stages of therapy with abused children
Stage one: Trust. No matter how much parents tell me their children are shy or “won’t talk to a therapist,” I’ve never failed to gain these children’s trust within the first session or two, often within the first few minutes. More than once I’ve been shocked at how quickly children have divulged deeply hurtful and frightening information to me, almost as though it was ready to explode from them at the first opportunity that someone took to listen. Other times, however, it has not been so easy. Hundreds of children have come through my office doors, and I have learned to use the tools of my trade to create an environment of safety.
Play therapists have an advantage over more traditional counselors in these first visits. My office is full of toys, puppets, books, crayons and sandboxes, along with literally thousands of miniatures. As we begin, my first question is usually “Would you like to play for a while?” Only rarely have I come across a child who didn’t want to play.
I want to give the child as much control as possible throughout therapy, but it is especially important during these first sessions. A therapist I greatly respect taught me the phrase, “You can do about anything you want to in here. If there is something you can’t do, I’ll tell you.” I have used that opening line for years, and it has never failed me.
But children will test that statement. When I said this during Mateo’s first visit, he asked skeptically, “Can I dump all the toys out of the toy box?” He rested his hand on the rim of the large plastic tub that contained many of my toys.
“If you need to,” was my response. As I have learned to expect when such a question is posed, Mateo turned the box up on end and dumped everything out. I sat quietly and smiled at him. He smiled back. I had passed his first test for me.
Mateo called me Greg from our first session. I hadn’t earned my Ph.D. at the time, but even now, I don’t like children referring to me as “doctor.” That term is too easily equated with shots or unpleasant experiences. “Greg” is just fine with me when parents will allow it. That also helps begin to create a context of “us” rather than a view that the child is there to be “treated.”
I have to be very careful how I move when I’m with children such as Mateo. Sexually abused children do not interpret movement in the same way that other children do, especially when that abuse has been repeated over many weeks or months. What most children would regard as an innocuous touch may easily be interpreted by sexually abused children as an invitation or command for sex. In the case of physically abused children, they will flinch if I move too quickly to reach for my pen, scratch my ear or adjust my sitting position on the floor (something I have to do often as I get older). Flinching is an unconscious protective reaction that these children have learned. The quick fists of abusers have surprised them before, so these children learn to be vigilant for punches and backhands. The body remembers.
Stage two: Symptom reduction. Once I’ve built trust with the child, I can begin stage two. During this part of therapy, I want to accomplish two things. First, I want to reduce the negative symptoms that brought the child to my office in the first place. If he or she isn’t sleeping or eating, or is having trouble paying attention at school or getting along with siblings, I work with the child and guardian(s) to address these symptoms.
Mateo regularly acted out sexually. He masturbated in public. He exposed himself to other children on his school bus and in his classroom. Most troubling, he forcibly fondled other children, especially younger girls who were too small or too confused to say no. We had to address these behaviors immediately. I almost always use behavioral modification tools to intervene when behaviors are as serious as these.
The second thing I want to accomplish is to provide the child with skills to manage or prevent his or her issues. I worked with Mateo to recognize his urges and to develop ways to manage them. I have two recliners in my office — one adult sized and one child sized. These are the “thinking chairs.” Mateo and I sat in the thinking chairs, both of us staring at the ceiling.
“I’m wondering what we could do when our body parts feel funny,” I said, referring to the urge to masturbate.
“Maybe I could go to my room,” Mateo said, interestingly turning my use of “we” into “I.” Children are surprisingly intuitive and insightful when adults take the time to listen to them. Going to his room was a good idea — one of many that Mateo came up with during the course of our therapy. When the child discovers a solution, he or she is more likely to believe it will work and, hence, more likely to implement it.
Stage three: Facing demons. Abreaction is a term I learned from Lenore Terr, a writer and psychiatrist in San Francisco. Abreaction means that the child is reliving or replaying the abuse in therapy. We all do this in everyday life. When something significant happens to us, we have the need to talk about it —reliving it through conversation.
Imagine that you saw a car accident happen in front of you on the way to work. You would tell your workmates when you arrived. You would think about it during the day. You might call your spouse and relate the event. This would go on until you had “talked it out.”
Young children don’t have the vocabulary or cognitive ability to talk it out. Instead, they act it out in dramatic play, through the pictures they draw or in the activities they engage in in my sandbox. They literally replay their traumas.
When Mateo was forcing the Tinker Toy into the doll’s mouth, he was abreacting. He was abreacting when he fondled children on his school bus, and his masturbation was also a form of abreaction. Like an interested workmate or an understanding spouse listening to your story of the auto accident, I help children work through their stories over and over until they achieve a resolution.
One child in therapy with me abreacted to a perpetrator by repeatedly burying a little toy man in a wad of play dough each day that we worked together. In subsequent sessions, the child left more and more of the little man uncovered by the play dough. By our last session together, only the toy’s feet remained covered. “I see the man is almost free,” I said to the child. Confidently, the child smiled at me and said, “That’s OK, I can handle him.” This little boy had worked through the trauma of his abduction and abuse. His therapy was almost done.
Stage four: Wrapping up. Once symptoms have abated to a point where the child can cope, when he has the tools to deal with stressors in his life and the invasive thoughts and dreams that haunted him have faded away, the child is ready to work toward closure.
After 10 months of therapy, Mateo’s parents reported to me that his autoerotic behavior was under control and he rarely engaged in that behavior in environments where it was inappropriate. He was no longer exposing himself or talking sexually with other children, and he hadn’t touched another child since our first visit. His abreaction in therapy had trickled into almost nothing. His outbursts and temper tantrums were greatly reduced, and his parents now had the skills they needed to work with Mateo without my assistance. It was time to talk about closure.
Stage five: Termination. Saying goodbye to Mateo was hard for me. When growth happens as it should in therapy, it is rewarding and exciting. It is hard not to take ownership of it, but the truth is, Mateo was responsible for that growth, not me.
In the last session with each of the children I work with, the child gets to choose what we do. This allows the child to have control of his or her final hour with me and the work we have done together.
Mateo selected what many children subsequent to him have chosen. “I want to draw something,” he said.
I nodded but otherwise said nothing. Spilling crayons onto the floor in front of him, he worked intently, drawing on the paper while I watched. I was afraid to move because I didn’t want to break his concentration. When he finished, he took a deep breath, smiled at me and handed me his drawing. Two stick figures were holding hands, the sun bright in the upper part of the page and flowers standing like sentinels on either side of them. One figure looked like Mateo, who always drew himself wearing a baseball cap. The other figure was an adult.
“Tell me about your picture,” I said with interest. But I already knew what he was going to say. It was just what I had hoped for.
“This is me,” he said, pointing to the smaller figure with the ball cap. Then, pointing to the other figure, he added, “… and this is my mom.”
He was ready to go. There would be days in the future when Mateo’s abuse would still haunt him, but for now, he had worked through his abuse, his support system was in place, and it was time for me to say goodbye.
Kids like Mateo are the reason I chose counseling with children as my career path. During my residency and internships, I sat with adults, many of them in their 50s and 60s, while they shared unresolved traumas dating back to childhood. I thought it was tragic that decades earlier, they had been set on a path that permanently affected their lives. Those traumas had set a course for the careers they would choose, the people they would marry and how they would cope with life.
For almost all of these individuals, no one had been there to help them at the time of their trauma. If they had received intervention those many years earlier, their lives would have turned out very differently. My hope for children like Mateo is that the time they spend with me will address issues that, left untreated, could lead to years of dysfunctional relationships and unhealthy habits.
There is nothing more satisfying than working with a child like Mateo. Boys and girls bring their stories to me day after day. The first time they come into my office, they are often broken and fragmented. They sometimes stare at me with wide eyes, wondering if it is even possible to overcome the painful experiences that life has dealt them. Yet at the same time, they are very hopeful and willing to take a chance on me. Most of them leave as completely new creatures. Even though their experiences will always remain with them, I can have confidence that they will not be in a counselor’s office 40 years in the future, crying because of the abuse they suffered. That is something we can take care of now, and that is why each day I face the challenges of this population with courage and hope.
Click here to read Gregory K. Moffatt’s related article on complications related to working with sexually abused children. In the article, he discusses confidentiality and mandated reporting, hidden agendas, assessment versus therapy, evidence-based therapy, preparing for court and staying healthy as a counselor when working with this population.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a licensed professional counselor and professor of counseling and human services at Point University in Georgia. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
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