Tag Archives: abuse

What’s left unsaid

By Lindsey Phillips January 3, 2019

A child discloses that her grandfather has been sexually abusing her, and the mother’s response is shock that his abuse didn’t stop with her when she was a child. This scene is not uncommon for Molly VanDuser, the president and clinical director of Peace of Mind, an outpatient counseling and trauma treatment center in North Carolina. As she explains, adult survivors of child sexual abuse often assume that the offender has changed or is too old to engage in such actions again. So, the abuse persists.

Concetta Holmes, the clinical director of the Child Protection Center in Sarasota, Florida, has treated clients with similar intergenerational abuse stories. “In that unresolved trauma … what has happened is now a culture of silence around sexual violence that is ingrained in the family,” she says. “That [affects] things like your feelings of safety, security [and] trustworthiness, and it reinforces that you should stay with people who hurt you.”

Kimberly Frazier, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Rehabilitation and Counseling at Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center, acknowledges that people often don’t want to think or talk about child sexual abuse, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. The nonprofit Darkness to Light reported in 2013 that approximately 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18.

Because of the culture of silence that surrounds child sexual abuse, it is safe to assume that the true number is even higher. Cases of child sexual abuse often continue for years because the abuse is built on a foundation of secrets and fear, Frazier points out. Survivors frequently fear what will happen to them (or to others) if they tell, or the shame they feel about the abuse deters them from disclosing.

Societal norms can also diminish a survivor’s likelihood of disclosing. For example, society has for decades implicitly sanctioned sexual interactions between boys who are minors and adult woman, but it is still abuse, says Anna Viviani, an associate professor of counseling and director of the clinical mental health counseling and counselor education programs at Indiana State University. Holmes adds that gender stereotypes such as this can cause boys to feel as though they shouldn’t be or weren’t affected by sexual abuse, which is not the case.

“I think the biggest fallacy [counselors have] is that [child sexual abuse] is going to impact people from a particular demographic more than another,” Viviani says. “Childhood sexual abuse cuts across every demographic. I think the sooner we can accept that, the sooner we’re going to be better at identifying clients when they have this issue in their history.”

Putting on a detective hat

Identifying signs of child sexual abuse is neither easy nor straightforward. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the signs are not clear-cut, says VanDuser, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and an American Counseling Association member. Regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting can indicate abuse, but they might also be the result of other changes such as a recent move, a new baby in the family or a military parent deploying, she explains.

VanDuser also warns that child sexual abuse is insidious because a lot goes on before the offender actually touches the child. “Childhood sexual abuse sometimes leaves no physical wounds to identify,” she says. Some examples of noncontact abuse include peeping in the window at the child, making a child watch pornography or encouraging a child to sit on one’s lap and play the “tickle game.” Such activities are part of the grooming process — the way that offenders build trust and gain access to the child.

In addition to physical signs such as bladder and vaginal infections, changes in eating habits, and stomachaches, survivors of child sexual abuse also demonstrate behavioral and emotional changes. One major warning sign is if the child displays a more advanced knowledge of sex than one would expect at the child’s developmental stage, VanDuser says.

Other possible behavioral signs include not wanting to be alone with a certain person (e.g., stepfather, babysitter), becoming clingy with a nonoffending caregiver, not wanting to remove clothing to change or bathe, being afraid of being alone at night, having nightmares or having difficulty concentrating. In general, counselors should look for behaviors that are out of character for that particular child, VanDuser advises.

Viviani, a licensed clinical professional counselor and an ACA member, also finds that people who have experienced child sexual abuse have higher rates of depression, anxiety, panic disorders and posttraumatic stress disorders.

Because the signs of child sexual abuse are rarely clear-cut, counselors must be good investigators, Viviani argues. In her experience, adult survivors present with an array of symptoms, including health concerns, relationship problems and gaps in memory, so counselors have to look for patterns to discover the underlying issue.

If counselors notice any of these signs, VanDuser recommends asking the client, “When did this problem (e.g., bed-wetting, cutting, nightmares, acting out in school) begin?” Counselors can then follow up and ask, “What else was going on at that time?” The answers to these questions often reveal the underlying issue, she notes. For example, if the client responds that his or her depression or vigilance to the environment began around age 12, VanDuser says she will dig deeper into the client’s family relationships.

Frazier, an LPC and a member of ACA, suggests that counselors can also look for patterns in a child’s drawing — for example, what colors they use, how intensely they draw with certain colors, or if they scratch out certain people or choose not to include someone — or in the choices children make with activities such as feeling faces cards (cards that depict different emotional facial expressions). When Frazier asked one of her clients who had come to counseling because of suspected sexual abuse to select from the feeling face cards, she noticed the client consistently picked cards with people wearing glasses. Frazier later discovered that the child’s abuser wore glasses.

For Frazier, becoming a detective also involves going outside of the office to observe the child in different spaces, such as in school, in day care or at the park. Frazier includes the possibility of outside observations in her consent form, so the child’s parent or guardian agrees to it beforehand. She advises that counselors should take note of whether the child’s behavior is consistent across all of these spaces or whether there are changes from home to school, for example. In addition, she suggests asking the parents or guardians follow-up questions about how the child’s behavior has changed (e.g., Has the child lost the joy of playing his or her favorite sport? Is the child withdrawn? Is the child fighting?).

Speaking a child’s language

Young children may not have the words or cognitive development to tell counselors about the abuse they have been subjected to. Instead, these children may engage in traumatic play, such as having monsters in the sand tray eat each other or being in a frenzied state and drawing aggressive pictures, VanDuser says.

“One of the most important things for clinicians to remember when they’re working with kids and abuse is that it’s really critical to be working within the languages that children speak,” says Holmes, a licensed clinical social worker and a nationally credentialed advocate through the National Organization for Victim Assistance. “Children speak through a variety of different languages that aren’t just verbal. They speak through play. They speak through art, through writing [and] through movement, so it becomes really important that clinicians get creative in using evidence-based practices and different modalities to talk with children through their language. … Talking in a child’s language allows them to feel like the topic at hand is less overwhelming and less scary.”

For example, children can use Legos to build a wall of their emotions, Holmes says, with counselors instructing clients to pick colors to represent different emotions. If orange represents sadness and red represents frustration and 90 percent of the child’s wall contains orange and red Legos, then the counselor gets a better visualization of what emotions are inside the child, she says.

Next, counselors could ask clients what it would take to remove a red brick of frustration or what their ideal wall would look like, such as one that contains more bricks representing happiness or peace. Counselors can also ask these clients to rebuild their Lego walls throughout therapy to see how their emotions are changing, Holmes says. This method is easier than asking children if their anger has decreased and by how much, she adds.

Frazier, past president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, a division of ACA, also finds that working with children keeps counselors on their toes. Children are honest and will admit if they do not like an intervention, so counselors have to be ready to shift strategies quickly, she says. For this reason, counselors need to have a wide range of creative approaches in their counseling bag. She recommends drawing supplies, play school or kitchen sets, play dough and sand trays.

With sand trays, Frazier likes to provide dinosaurs and other nonhuman figurines for children to play with because it helps them not to feel constrained or limited. This allows them to freely let a dinosaur or car represent a particular person or idea, she explains.

Frazier also recommends the “Popsicle family” intervention, in which children decorate Popsicle sticks to represent their family members and support systems. This exercise provides insight into family dynamics (who is included in the family and who isn’t) and allows children to describe and interact with these “people” like they would with Barbie dolls, she says.

Frazier advises counselors to keep culturally and developmentally appropriate materials on hand. For example, they should have big crayons for young children with limited fine motor skills, and they should have various shades of crayons, markers, pencils and construction paper so children can easily create what they want.

Being multiculturally competent goes beyond ethnicity, Frazier points out. Counselors should understand the culture the child grew up in and the culture of the child’s current locality because what is considered “normal” in one city or area might differ from another, she says. For example, in New Orleans, where she lives, people regularly have “adopted” family members. So, if a child from New Orleans were creating his or her Popsicle family, it wouldn’t be strange to see the child include several people outside of his or her immediate family and refer to them as “cousin” or “aunt,” even if they aren’t blood relatives.

Thus, Frazier stresses the importance of counselors immersing themselves in the worldview of their child clients. “You can’t be a person who works with kids and not know all the shows and the stuff that’s happening with that particular age group, the music, the things that are on trend and the things they’re talking about,” Frazier says. “Otherwise, you’ll always be behind trying to ask them, ‘What does that mean?’”

With adolescents, Holmes finds narrative therapy to be particularly effective, and she often incorporates art and interview techniques into the process. For example, the counselor could ask the client to draw a picture of an emotion that he or she feels, such as anger. Next, the client would give this emotion a name and create a short biography about it. For example, how was anger born? How did it grow up to be who it is? What fuels it? Why does it hang around?

Next, Holmes says, the counselor and client could discuss the questions the client would ask this emotion if it had its own voice. Then, the client could interview the initial picture of the emotion and use his or her own voice to answer the questions as the emotion would. The answers provide insight into the emotional distress the client is feeling, Holmes explains.

Frazier will do ad-lib word games with older children, who are often more verbal. While clients fill in the blanks to create their own stories, she looks for themes (e.g., gloomy story) or the child’s response to the word game (e.g., eager, withdrawn). 

Long-lasting effects

Unfortunately, the effects of child sexual abuse don’t end with childhood or even with counseling. “Children revisit their trauma at almost every age and stage of development, which is every two to three years,” Holmes notes. “That might not mean they need counseling each and every time, but they find new meaning in it or they find they have new questions … or new emotions about it.”

Viviani, VanDuser and Frazier agree that recovery is a lifelong process. As survivors age, they will have sexual encounters, get married, become pregnant or have their child reach the age they were when the abuse occurred. These events can all become trigger points for a flood of new physical and emotional symptoms related to the child sexual abuse, Viviani says.

Often, an issue separate from the abuse causes adult survivors to seek counseling. In fact, VanDuser says she rarely gets an adult who discloses child sexual abuse as the presenting issue. Instead, she finds adult clients are more likely to come in because their own child is having behavioral problems or because they’re feeling depressed or anxious, they’re having nightmares or they’re married and have no interest in sex.

Adults survivors often experience long-term physical ailments. According to Viviani, who presented on this topic at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta, some of the ailments include diabetes, fibromyalgia and chronic pain syndromes, pelvic pain, sexual difficulties, headaches, substance use disorders, eating disorders, cardiovascular problems, hypertension and gastrointestinal problems.

Another long-term issue for survivors is difficulty forming healthy relationships. Because child sexual abuse alters boundaries, survivors may not realize when something is odd or abusive in a relationship, VanDuser says. For example, if an adult survivor is in a relationship with someone who is overly jealous and possessive, he or she may mistakenly translate that jealously into a sign of love.

Child sexual abuse can also affect decision-making as an adult around careers, housing, personal activities and sexual intimacy, Viviani notes. For example, one of her clients wanted to attend a Bible study group but didn’t feel safe being in a smaller group where a man might pay attention to her. In addition, Viviani finds that adult survivors sometimes choose careers they are not interested in just because those careers provide a safe environment with no triggers.

To help adult clients make sense of the abuse they suffered as children and move forward, Viviani often uses meaning-making activities and mindfulness techniques. She suggests that counselors help these clients find a way to do something purposeful with their history of abuse, whether that involves sharing their story with a testimony at church, volunteering for a mental health association or participating in a walk/run to raise awareness of suicide prevention.

Finding self-compassion

Survivors of child sexual abuse often blame themselves for the abuse or the aftermath once the abuse is revealed, especially if it results in the offender leaving the family, the family losing its home or the family’s income dropping, VanDuser says. One of her clients even confessed to thinking that she somehow triggered her child sexual abuse from her stepfather.

“Sometimes the worst part is the dread [when the child knows the sexual abuse is] coming eventually. So, sometimes a teenager will actually initiate it to get it over with because the only time they feel relief is after it’s done,” VanDuser explains. “Then they know for a while that they won’t be bothered again.”

Counselors often need to shine a light on survivors’ cognitive distortions to help them work through their guilt and shame, VanDuser says. She tries to help clients understand that the sexual abuse was not their fault by changing their perspective. For example, she will take a client to a park where there are children close to the age the survivor was when the abuse happened. She’ll point to one of the children playing and ask, “What could the child really do?” This simple question often helps clients realize that they couldn’t have done anything to prevent the abuse, VanDuser says.

Viviani takes a similar approach by talking with clients in the third person about their expectations of what a child would developmentally be able to do in a similar situation. She asks clients if they would blame another child (their grandchild or niece, for example) for being sexually abused. Then she asks why they blame themselves for what happened to them because they were also just children at the time.

“As you frame it that way, they begin to have a little bit more compassion for themselves, and self-compassion is something that’s so important for survivors to develop,” Viviani says. In her experience, survivors are hard on themselves, often exercising magical thinking about what they should or should not have been able to do as a child. “As we help them develop self-compassion and self-awareness, we see the guilt begin to dissipate,” she adds.

Regaining a sense of safety

Safety — in emotions, relationships and touches — is a critical component of treatment for a child who has been sexually abused, Holmes stresses.

Counselors should teach clients about safe and unsafe touches, personal boundaries and age-appropriate sexual behavior rules, adds Amanda Jans, a registered mental health counseling intern and mental health therapist for the Child Protection Center in Sarasota. Counselors can also help clients “understand that they are in charge of their bodies, so even if a touch is safe, it doesn’t mean they have to accept it,” she says.

Hula hoops provide a creative way to discuss personal space boundaries with clients, Holmes notes. Counselors can use hula hoops of different sizes to illustrate safe and unsafe boundaries with a parent, sibling, friend or stranger, she explains.

VanDuser helps clients engage in safety planning by having them draw their hand on a piece of paper. For each finger, they figure out a corresponding person they can tell if something happens to them in the future.

Counselors can also take steps to ensure that their offices are safe settings. Jans, an ACA member who presented on the treatment of child sexual abuse at the ACA 2018 Conference, uses noise machines to ensure privacy and aromatherapy machines to make the environment more comfortable. She also has a collection of kid-friendly materials, so if a child starts to feel dysregulated during a session, he or she can take a break and play basketball or color.

Likewise, if clients are hesitant to discuss the topic, Jans allows them to take a step back. For instance, she has clients read someone else’s experience (either real or fictional) rather than having them write their own story, or she has clients role-play with someone else serving as the main character, not themselves. This distance helps clients move to a place where they eventually can discuss their own stories, she says.

Another technique Jans uses to ease clients into writing and processing their own stories is a word web. Together, Jans and a client will brainstorm words related to the client’s experience and put the words on a web (a set of circles drawn on a paper in a weblike pattern). Jans finds this exercise helps clients get comfortable talking about the subject and, eventually, these words become part of their narrative.

VanDuser also suggests getting out of the office. Sometimes she takes child and adolescent clients to a store to get a candy bar. On the way, she will ask them what they are feeling or noticing. If clients say that someone walking by makes them feel strange, VanDuser asks how they would address this feeling or what they would do if someone approached them. Then they will talk through strategies that would make the client feel safe in this situation.

Taking back control

Survivors of child sexual abuse often feel they can’t control what happens around them or to them, Frazier says. So, counselors can get creative using interventions that return control to these survivors and make them feel safe.

Viviani helps clients regain some sense of control in their lives by teaching grounding and coping skills. “Coping skills are so important to helping them begin to trust in themselves again so that they have the skills to really uncover and deal with the abuse,” she explains.

In sessions, counselors can help clients recognize what their bodies feel when they are triggered. Then they can help clients learn to deescalate through grounding skills such as noticing and naming things in their current surroundings or reminding themselves of where they are and the current date, Viviani says. Rather than reliving the incident — being back in their bedroom at age 5, for example — clients learn to ground themselves in the here and now: “This is Jan. 10, 2019, and I’m sitting in my office.”

VanDuser highly recommends trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT) for work with survivors of child sexual abuse. TF-CBT is a short-term treatment, typically 12-16 sessions, that incorporates psychoeducation on traumatic stress for both the child and nonoffending parent or caregiver, skills for identifying and regulating emotions, cognitive behavior therapy and a trauma narrative technique.

For a creative approach, VanDuser suggests letting children use crayons and a lunch bag to create a “garbage bag.” She first writes down all the bad feelings (e.g., fear, anger, shame) the client has about the abuse. As the child finishes working on one of the bad feelings, he or she puts the feeling in the garbage bag. When all the feelings are in the bag, VanDuser lets the client dispose of it however he or she wishes — by burning it, burying it, throwing it in the actual garbage or some other method.

Jans and Holmes suggest empowering clients by giving them some control in session. For example, if clients are feeling sad, the counselor can remind them of the coping strategies they have been working on (perhaps progressive muscle relaxation and grounding techniques) and ask which one they want to use to address this feeling. The counselor could also list the goals of therapy for that day and ask clients which one they want to work on first, Holmes says.

Holmes acknowledges that clients may never make sense of the abuse they suffered, but counselors can help them make sense of the abuse’s impact and aftermath. For Holmes, this meaning making involves clients being empowered to reclaim their lives after abuse rather than being held hostage by it, realizing that trauma doesn’t have to define them and learning to be compassionate with themselves.

The hero who told

Holmes encourages counselors not to shy away from discussing child sexual abuse. “If clinicians hesitate, clients will hesitate. If the clinician avoids it, the client will avoid it,” Holmes says. “It’s the clinician’s responsibility to take the lead on this topic. Sexual abuse is so widespread in our society that we do our clients a disservice when we don’t incorporate sexual abuse histories into our [client] assessments.”

Typically, however, counselors are not the first person a child will tell about the abuse. Often, children first disclose the abuse to a teacher or other school personnel, and their reaction is crucial in ensuring that the child gets help, Viviani says.

Thus, she advises counselors to partner with schools and child advocacy organizations to educate them on what they should do if a child discloses sexual abuse. “They need to know what to do,” Viviani emphasizes. “They need to know what to say to support that child because we may not get another chance, at least until they hit college age when they’re not under that roof anymore, or we may never get that chance again.”

Counselors must also empower survivors of child sexual abuse. “They shouldn’t be waiting for the therapist … or their best friend to ride in and save them. We want them to be the hero of their own story,” Holmes says. “And how we do that is through finding ways they can start to recognize and make safe and healthy decisions about different pieces of their life, and we want to model that even within the therapy environment.”

The end result of TF-CBT is the child writing his or her own narrative of the sexual abuse. VanDuser emphasizes that no matter how the child’s sexual abuse story begins, it always has the same ending: the hero — the child — who told.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at consulting@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The wise support system in domestic violence rescue efforts

By David L. Prucha April 9, 2018

A lot has been written about domestic violence, the cycles that keep people in violent relationships and how to get out of them. The commentary focuses on the role of substance abuse, the role of personality disorders and a cycle of conflict that ends with the exchange of a “never again” promise. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Although I believe these are relevant factors in violent relationships, a dynamic often emerges between the victim and her concerned loved ones, and this dynamic might play a role in keeping the violent relationship intact. It is of course sensible to think about the relationship between the abuser and the victim, but what else can we learn by looking at the relationship between the victim and her potential safety net?

If you are a family member looking from the outside in on a violent relationship, things look pretty black and white. The abuser is a bad guy. In fact, it’s probably better to use the word “evil.” He is taking advantage of someone smaller than him, he’s probably done this in previous relationships, and his promise to change can’t be trusted. He is one-dimensional: bad. The hottest place in hell is reserved for men of his ilk.

For those on the outside looking in, this is terrifying. Their loved one is in danger, she is captive, and if that wasn’t bad enough, she seems ambivalent about her chains. This leads family and friends to express their hatred for the abuser, but in their desperation, they might also express their frustration with the victim: “You’re smarter than this. I can’t believe you got yourself into this.” For those in the victim’s support system, a life might be hanging in the balance, so this seems no time to mince words.

If you are on the inside of the relationship looking outward, however, the picture can appear very different. Although the victim can certainly recognize her partner’s shortcomings, she cannot quite see what her support system sees. She doesn’t see a one-dimensional evil man.

Instead, she sees someone who is conflicted, someone who hates himself, someone who can’t get a grip on his emotions. Because she knows the “inner him,” she struggles to reconcile the blunt feedback from her family with the person she loves. The two pictures just don’t add up.

Could her partner really be as manipulative and cold as they say? Surely not. His regret and anguish are sincere. She has witnessed him cry out of self-hatred, and evil men don’t do that. He is broken but not bad. He wants to change, and she can’t imagine leaving because she doesn’t want to be like everyone else who has left him in the past.

 

A disciplined rescue

Before people are open to receiving help, they have to trust that the complexity of their problem is well-understood. When families characterize their loved one’s abuser as pure evil, a demonic caricature with cloven hoof, it delegitimizes their feedback, because for the victim, this evil cartoon character is nowhere to be found. In fact, the blunt feedback often has the opposite effect — it reinforces for the victim that the goodness of her partner isn’t being taken into account. This hardens her conviction that she is alone in understanding the situation, and this has the unintended consequence of further isolating her.

Given that explanation, what can be done? One way to intervene is to help the victim understand that there is a difference between evil people and destructive people, but both types of people can do the same amount of damage. In making this distinction, it validates that her partner is not a one-dimensional monster without dismissing the fact that a destructive reality still exists that needs to be addressed. This approach doesn’t isolate the victim from her support system. It also helps her understand why her situation feels so gut-wrenching: She has to leave someone who is partly good.

But partly good is not good enough. When we offer the truth that people are never entirely good or entirely evil, we offer an alternative worldview that enables victims to refine their partner-selection process in the future.

No longer should they reassure themselves if a destructive person shows goodness, because displays of goodness are no longer sufficient criteria for choosing a partner. Instead, the criteria become more nuanced. Despite the display of goodness, is this person also destructive? Victims learn that the presence of goodness and vulnerability are not the only variables to consider.

A second way to help is to teach victims that empathy is a morally neutral disposition: It can lead to both health and destruction. After all, the best predators use empathy to scan for the psychological vulnerabilities of other people. This maximizes predators’ ability to exploit.

In the cases of victims of domestic violence, their empathy is doing them harm. They are spending too much time thinking about how leaving the relationship would impact their partner and not enough time thinking about how they are themselves being harmed. Their high capacity for empathy has led them to walk around in the mind of their abuser for far too long, thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings. The victim is not in her situation because she is foolish but because she has not learned how to manage her empathic impulses. Learning how to power down her empathy is vital, and she can do this by learning how to reprioritize her own needs.

Reprioritizing her needs can lead to feelings of guilt, and this comes from a sense that she is being selfish. The victim is in the habit of giving 100 apples to her partner without taking one for herself, so now taking 50 apples feels incredibly wrong. However, with the right help, she can learn that meeting her own needs is not selfish but is instead necessary to be truly generous.

In fact, when we compulsively engage with something that damages our well-being, it is not generosity — it is addiction. The person with alcoholism no longer enjoys the drink, and the person addicted to empathy no longer enjoys giving. Instead, they both feel bound to their habits. It’s not that virtue motivates the victim to give away the 100 apples; it’s that she doesn’t know how to give less than 100 apples away.

When victims learn that empathy has become a force for harm in their lives and that true generosity can’t flow forth from inner compulsion, the sense of virtue that they previously associated with staying in the relationship is tarnished. It isn’t that the abuser is without a gradient of goodness; it’s that he is still profoundly dangerous. It’s not that she is motivated by virtue; it’s that her empathy has kept her from seeing that her needs for safety and love should be more important to her than his need to avoid anxiety or sadness.

The hope is that thinking about how support systems can unintentionally create defensiveness and isolation in victims of domestic violence will lead to better rescue strategies. Although it feels repugnant for support systems to acknowledge the goodness in the victimizer, in some cases this might allow the victim to see more clearly the destructiveness of her partner. If members of the support system are able to stop themselves from accusing the perpetrator of simply being evil, this might lead the victim to feel powerfully understood. Perhaps the intimacy of feeling understood will increase the victim’s trust in the bridge away from her relationship and into the arms of those who love her.

 

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David L. Prucha is an adjunct professor of psychology at Johnson and Wales University in Denver, Colorado. He is also a licensed professional counselor who maintains an independent practice that specializes in depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and trauma and stressor-related disorders. Email him at contact@pruchacounseling.com.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The toll of childhood trauma

By Laurie Meyers June 23, 2014

Little-girl_brandingMention the word trauma to Americans in the 21st century, and their thoughts are likely to turn to images of terrorism, war, natural disasters and a seemingly continual stream of school shootings. The horrific scenes at Newtown and Columbine still dominate public consciousness, particularly when our society discusses child trauma. While those events make headlines, however, counseling professionals say the most pervasive traumatic threat to children is found not in big events or stranger danger, but in chronic and systemic violence that happens in or close to the home.

This kind of ongoing trauma, much of which takes place out of public view, leaves deep scars that can cause a lifetime of emotional, mental, physical and social dysfunction if left untreated. Research shows that chronic, complex trauma can even rewire a child’s brain, leading to cognitive and developmental issues.

The good news is that counselors in all areas of practice — in schools, agencies, shelters, clinics, private practice and elsewhere — can and are working with children and, when possible, their parents to stop the cycle of violence, or at least to mitigate its effects.

Behind closed doors

The number of children exposed to violence in the United States is staggering. According to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and carried out by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center, more than 60 percent of children surveyed had been exposed to direct or indirect violence during the 12 months prior to the survey. Nearly half — 46.3 percent — had been assaulted at least once in the past year, meaning they had experienced one or more of the following: any physical assault, assault with a weapon, assault with injury, attempted assault, attempted or completed kidnapping, assault by a brother or sister, assault by another child or adolescent, nonsexual genital assault, dating violence, bias attacks or threats. One in 10 had experienced some form of maltreatment, which includes nonsexual physical abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, child neglect and custodial interference. Other CDC research indicates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse. However, many experts emphasize that due to the stigma involved, sexual abuse is underreported.

Significant exposure to violence and trauma can also lead to illness later in life. From 1995-1997, the CDC, in collaboration with Kaiser Permanente, collected detailed medical information from 17,000 patients at Kaiser’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. These patients also answered detailed questions about childhood experiences of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. The initial study, Adverse Childhood Experiences, as well as more than 50 studies since using the same population, found that adult survivors of childhood abuse are more likely to develop chronic conditions and diseases such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and liver disease. They are also more likely to engage in risky health behaviors such as smoking and drug and alcohol abuse. In addition, adult survivors of child abuse may have autobiographical memory problems; exhibit increased problems with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses; and struggle with suicidal tendencies.

NatSCEV data, collected between January and May 2008, indicate that one in 10 children surveyed experienced five or more incidents of direct violence. It is this kind of ongoing abuse that can cause polyvictimization, or what many researchers call complex trauma — repeated exposure to traumatic events over time and often at the hands of caregivers or other loved ones.

“This cumulative trauma has much more serious effects than a single event,” says David Lawson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed marriage and family therapist in Nacogdoches, Texas, who has worked with victims and perpetrators of sexual and domestic abuse since the 1980s. Because the abuse is ongoing, it disrupts a child’s sense of security, safety and self and alters the way he or she sees others, explains Lawson, an American Counseling Association member who is also a researcher and professor in the school psychology and counseling program at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.

“In childhood, attachments are still forming, and abuse can shatter this developing ability,” says Jennifer Baggerly, an ACA member, LPC and play therapist who studies child trauma intervention. “It can also distort their forming personality and the way they interact with people as a whole.” This distortion can cause the child to believe that the world is an unsafe place and that people aren’t trustworthy, adds Baggerly, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Services at the University of North Texas at Dallas.

That pattern of uncertainty and instability can cause cognitive distortion, dissociation and problems with emotional self-regulation and relationship formation, and even alter a child’s brain structure, notes Lawson, the author of Family Violence: Explanations and Evidence-Based Clinical Practice, published by ACA in 2013.

“Children get stuck in flight or fight,” adds Baggerly. “Everything is a threat, so instead of strengthening the prefrontal cortex, the brain operates more from the limbic system, which causes them to be more hypervigilant.”

Because they are almost constantly on alert, these children and adolescents most of the time use what Lawson calls their “survival brain” instead of their “learning brain.” Childhood and adolescence are periods in which the brain is developing rapidly and crucial cognitive skills are being learned. If children and adolescents spend too much time in survival mode, they are not accessing areas in the brain that are responsible for learning developmentally appropriate cognitive skills and laying down the neural pathways that are critical to future learning.

“As the child gets older, this chronic hypervigilance — and the overload of cortisol that comes with it — completely remaps the brain and just stifles development,” says Gail Roaten, president-elect of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of ACA. “You see them lose ground cognitively, especially in their ability to learn.”

Support and stability

Traumatized children’s problems with cognition, learning, self-regulation and development can last a lifetime, making it more likely that they will continue the cycle of abuse in their relationships, abuse drugs and alcohol, have trouble finding and keeping jobs or end up in the criminal justice system. Adults who were traumatized as children also are much more likely to face a host of physical and mental health problems.

The situation is far from hopeless, however. Counseling interventions for trauma can make a dramatic difference, and the earlier a child starts receiving therapy, the better. A variety of techniques have proved to be effective, but interventions are most successful when a supportive environment is created, Lawson emphasizes. Whenever possible, a parent or parents should be participants in a child’s therapy (as long as they are not the perpetrators of the abuse), and if not the biological parents, then foster parents or grandparents.

“I try to bring in whoever can help build a support system for the child,” Lawson says, “because an hour a week [of counseling] is woefully inadequate, and I need to have them able to take what they learn in therapy into the home.”

In many cases, parents or caregivers need help learning how to support the abused child emotionally, he says. When parents come to sessions with their children, the counselor can help the parents learn not just the best way to support the child in therapy, but also how to strengthen their parenting skills.

“We really emphasize connection,” Lawson says. “Once they [abused children] have attachment, they may be ready to tell parents about their abuse and may just blurt it out at home. I try to prepare parents to listen to the child. If the parents are not comfortable addressing this [topic], I have them at least write down what the child says and then use that as a therapeutic prompt.”

In sessions, Lawson guides parents, teaching them how to interact and better bond with children who have been traumatized. Some parents and caregivers have never really learned how to play with their children, he says.

At the same time, he notes that learning positive interaction skills is not just about the fun stuff. Parents and caregivers also need to know how to effectively discipline the child. “Many times when parents find out that their child has been abused, they are hesitant to discipline or correct behavior because they feel sorry for them,” he says. “Or they come down too hard.”

Lawson encourages parents to use time-outs, to not respond when a child is acting out with attention-getting behavior and to not use corporal punishment.

In the absence of parents or other supportive adults, the counselor may become the stabilizing adult in a traumatized child’s life. Although the counselor is not with the child as often as a parent or caregiver would be, just having someone who is concerned and will listen to whatever the child wants to say can be enough for an abused child to start to heal, Lawson says, even if he or she never chooses to talk about the abuse. He notes that even in the absence of other supportive figures, the therapeutic bond between counselor and child can help in decreasing hyperarousal.

Counselors need to know that although it may seem best to address the child’s trauma right away, establishing and cementing the therapeutic relationship must come first, Lawson says. The child needs to feel safe and supported — even if it is only in the counselor’s office — before he or she can begin to process the trauma.

“You’re trying to get them in a safe place if possible, or at least a predictable place,” Lawson says. “Then we can start teaching them how to cope [with the trauma] without lashing out or
avoiding it.”

Abused children do not know how to cope with what they are experiencing, Lawson says. It is common for children who are traumatized to lash out in anger when stressed and to feel that the best way to establish some sort of stability in their lives is to try to control everything. They may be moody, irritable or withdrawn. Abused children may also bully and hit other children or turn their anger on themselves and engage in self-abusive behaviors such as cutting.

Once a child feels supported, the counselor can also begin to teach the child how to self-soothe. Lawson guides traumatized children in using calming techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing or grounding themselves by focusing on something external such as the ticking of the clock or the texture of their clothes. “The point is to experience emotions in a safe place and cut out bad coping behaviors,” he says.

Safety first

Jennifer Foster, an assistant professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology at Western Michigan University, studies child sexual abuse. Much of her research has involved listening to the narratives of abuse victims and how they perceive what has happened to them. Although these children display myriad reactions and emotions, Foster says two themes are always prominent: fear and safety.

“Child victims of sexual abuse often view the world as unsafe and are likely to enter counseling with unresolved fears,” Foster says. “They need help from their counselor to learn how to cope with their fears.”

“Although adults often see disclosure as a positive thing that will put an end to the abuse, for many children it is embarrassing and frightening, especially for those who feel at fault for their abuse and believe they will be blamed or, worse, not believed,” says Foster, who studied the experiences of sexually abused children for her dissertation.

Several counseling interventions are designed to help sexually abused children regain a sense of safety. One is called the “safe place technique,” in which a counselor guides the child in visualizing and vividly describing an imaginary safe place.

“The counselor may say, ‘Close your eyes and picture a special place where you feel completely safe,’” Foster explains. “This can be followed by specific questions to capture additional details such as: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What are you doing in your safe place? The details are recorded by the counselor and used to create a script.”

Once the safe place has been established, the child can return to it mentally anytime he or she feels stressed or scared, Foster says.

Another intervention called the “comfort kit,” developed by Liana Lowenstein, helps children who engage in nonsuicidal self-injury to learn self-soothing strategies, says Foster. “Counselors help children brainstorm and create a list of items that bring them comfort and make them feel better,” she explains. “Although the process is guided by the counselor, children are the ones who choose what will go inside their box or bag.”

Foster says children commonly include items such as a blanket, music, a favorite stuffed animal, written or recorded guided imagery, a stress ball, a list of relaxation activities, bubbles (for deep breathing exercises), a favorite book, a picture of a caring person or special place, a journal and pen, art supplies and a list of self-affirmations.

Foster is also a proponent of bibliotherapy. “Children’s books about sexual abuse can introduce child victims to others who have had similar experiences, which may lead to decreased feelings of isolation and normalize their trauma-related symptoms,” she says.

Books can also provide comfort, offer coping suggestions and teach kids important lessons such as that the abuse is not their fault, Foster adds.

Because fear is a predominant issue for child victims of sexual abuse, Foster also recommends stories that specifically address feeling afraid. Her suggestions include Once Upon a Time: Therapeutic Stories That Teach and Heal by Nancy Davis and A Terrible Thing Happened: A Story for Children Who Have Witnessed Violence or Trauma by Margaret Holmes. To help older adolescents explore their memories and feelings connected to sexual abuse, Foster recommends The Secret: Art & Healing from Sexual Abuse by Francie Lyshak-Stelzer. Foster notes that the author’s artwork is particularly effective at capturing fear and the myriad other feelings generated by abuse.

Finding relief through play

Play therapy is one of the most commonly used interventions with children, particularly those who have suffered complex trauma, meaning they have experienced long-term (and often multiple types of) abuse, says Roaten, an LPC who works with traumatized children in clinics and schools, and an associate professor at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.

Most therapeutic playrooms feature a fairly specific set of toys that might include an art center, play dough, a Bobo doll (an inflatable plastic doll modeled after the inflatable clown used in Alfred Bandura’s seminal study on children and aggression), a dollhouse with miniature people, animal figures, toy weapons, costumes and a sandbox. These toys and activities help children to act out their experiences in a safe and less negative manner, Roaten says. For instance, she recounts treating one child who “would just attack and slash the doll where the penis was. She was a victim of sexual abuse.”

In some cases, Roaten says, children just “play through,” processing their trauma entirely through play without needing to talk to the play therapist.

In many instances, Baggerly says, traumatized children act out things they aren’t able to verbalize. She once treated a 6-year-old who didn’t speak for about 10 sessions because the girl had a severe case of internalized anxiety and depression. But as the girl played, she would express her rage by taking a gun and shooting the Bobo doll in the head, stomach and groin area. Baggerly took this cue as a chance to ask the child about the anger and hurt she was feeling.

Catherine Tucker, a licensed mental health counselor who works with traumatized children in her role as a counselor supervisor and consultant, uses a child and family therapy called Theraplay, which was developed by the Theraplay Institute in the 1960s. “Theraplay works on a four-dimensional model: structure, nurture, engagement and challenge,” says Tucker, an associate professor in the college of education at Indiana State University.

Theraplay builds and enhances attachment, self-esteem, trust in others and engagement through participation in simple games. The idea is that the four dimensions — structure, nurture, engagement and challenge — are needed by children for healthy emotional and psychological development. The “play” in Theraplay is built around activities that teach participants what the elements of those dimensions are. Ideally, children engage in Theraplay with their parents or caregivers. Participating together teaches skills to parents or caregivers who don’t know how to provide the four dimensions, while enhancing the bond with the child. In the absence of parents or caregivers — whether because they are abusive or because they cannot or do not want to participate — the counselor plays directly with the child so the child can still learn how to interact in an emotionally healthy way.

The games and activities are simple — suitable for children as young as 1, yet still engaging for older children — and include things such as blowing bubbles, playing with stuffed animals, cotton ball hockey, cotton ball wars and newspaper basketball. The activities teach parenting skills and also help traumatized children with affect regulation, impulse control, feeling safe and not feeling like they have to be in control of the world, Tucker says. She notes that, oftentimes, kids who have suffered trauma feel like they have to be in charge either because a parent is abusive or simply doesn’t know how to provide a sense of security or stability, or because the child’s sense of control is being undermined by the abuse he or she experienced at the hands of another adult or peer.

Finding help at school

Counselors who are treating traumatized children should tap all available resources to help these clients, Lawson says, working not only with caregivers or other relatives but also with the child’s school. School counselors may be a source of additional one-on-one counseling for the child, or they could get the child involved in group activities with other children who are trauma victims or with children who share common interests such as music, sports or art, Lawson says. These peer networks provide abused children additional sources of support and can also teach them how to interact with people — something that many abused and isolated children have never learned to do.

Perpetrators of abuse seek to control and isolate their victims. An abusive parent has the power to cut off or severely limit a child’s healthy interactions with people outside of the circle of abuse. “[These] kids often didn’t learn social skills because they are kept away from other people,” Lawson says.

Abuse is often part of a viciously long-lived cycle, handed down from generation to generation, Lawson adds. Parents who were abused as children often grow up to abuse their own children. Even if parents with an abusive background are not abusive themselves, they may still carry on other dysfunctional behaviors, he says.

“You may have three or four generations of people [who] have a very skewed view of how to interact with people,” he says. “So they never learn how to interact with others. You have to help [these children] connect with other sources.”

School counselors also can play important roles as advocates and educators. Many people — including teachers and administrators — do not understand that many children who act out are doing so because they have been or are being abused, Tucker asserts.

“School counselors can really make a difference by making sure that kids get evaluated instead of just automatically disciplined,” Tucker says.

“So many boys end up in the criminal justice system because they were physically acting out in response to trauma,” she adds.

School counselors can also help abused and traumatized children learn how to help themselves, says Elsa Leggett, an ACA member, associate professor of counseling at the University of Houston-Victoria and president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling.

“Talk to kids about safety plans,” Leggett urges. “Ask them, ‘When abusive things are going on at home, where do you go? How do you know when things are getting dangerous?’”

The most important thing that all practicing counselors can do to address childhood trauma is to ask questions, Lawson says. Children — and sometimes adults who were traumatized as children — don’t always recognize what they’ve experienced as abuse, so rather than asking “have you been abused?” Lawson instructs his students to pose questions such as “has anyone ever hit you?” and “has anyone ever touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable?”

ACA member Cynthia Miller is an assistant professor of counseling at South University in Richmond, Virginia, and an LPC who has worked with incarcerated women. She has seen the kind of positive change that can occur when people get the help they need, but she has also witnessed the pattern of incarceration, addiction and institutionalization that can become entrenched in generation after generation.

“If you want to decrease the amount of money we spend on treating people with substance abuse or incarceration,” Miller says, “address child abuse.”

Caring for children during a disaster

Although ongoing trauma causes the biggest and longest-lasting kind of damage, one-time events can also create problems that linger. It is particularly important for children to receive timely counseling intervention, experts say.

“Typically, most children will have short-term responses to a disaster that include five basic realms,” Baggerly says. These realms are:

  • Physical: Symptoms include headache or stomachache
  • Thought process: Children exhibit confusion and inattention
  • Emotional: Children are scared and sad
  • Behavioral: Children might become very withdrawn or clingy, or may start sucking their thumb or wetting the bed again
  • Spiritual/worldview: Children may question their beliefs about God and the world

(For more information about typical trauma responses and recommended interventions, see “Children’s trauma responses and intervention guidelines” below.)

“Typically these [responses] don’t last long,” Baggerly says, “but that depends on the kind of support kids get in the immediate aftermath.”

Ultimately, the purpose of any counseling intervention after a traumatic event is to reduce or eliminate a child’s anxiety and stress, Baggerly asserts. She attempts to do that by “resetting” the child and connecting him or her to coping strategies.

“They need caring family and community support,” Baggerly says, “but if it is a huge disaster, then parents and teachers are equally traumatized, so they are not able to give support to kids. That’s when you need to bring people from outside.”

Some children are at greater risk than others, Baggerly says. “Kids who don’t have supportive family [and] who already have anxiety or have some type of developmental disability often will have ongoing symptoms that go longer than 30 days,” she explains. “Counselors need to triage to find out who is at most risk.”

During her roughly dozen years of experience working with chronic trauma and disasters, Baggerly has developed an integrated approach that she calls disaster response play therapy. The approach uses a trauma-informed philosophy in which counselors train parents and teachers in typical and atypical reactions to disasters so they can screen children and determine which ones need more help, she explains. “We also normalize typical symptoms, provide psychoeducation that informs kids about the impact of disasters, teach them coping strategies and provide them with child-centered play therapy.”

Baggerly usually begins by gathering a group of children and talking with them about rebuilding the community. She also encourages children to use expressive arts or drama to communicate their feelings.

“The other part of what we do is facilitate connection and conversation between kids and parents,” Baggerly says. “We may start out with Theraplay and do structured activities, such as holding hands or singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’ The point is to have them [parents and children] looking at each other so that the mirror neurons can be engaged.”

Baggerly also educates parents on activities they can do at home with their children. She refers them to an online workbook, “After the Storm,” which has scales of 1 to 10 or a thermometer that kids can fill in to indicate how much stress they are feeling.

Roaten often does volunteer trauma work and provided on-site support in the wake of the April 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, injured more than 150 and caused extensive damage to buildings and property.

“One girl, a seventh-grader, had been standing outside in a neighborhood with a view of the plant and observed the explosion itself,” Roaten says. “So she had that image in her head and it would not go away. I taught her some deep breathing and progressive relaxation and did some guided imagery about her favorite place to be.

“When that picture came up in her mind, she could breathe, relax and go to her good place. By the fourth day I was there, she was no longer seeing the image.”

Roaten uses expressive therapy for children who aren’t very verbal or who don’t have the vocabulary to talk about their feelings. She brings a sand tray with miniatures of fences, people and buildings. She then allows children (and even adults) to set up scenarios or vignettes that help them express and act out what they are feeling.

“I might say something like, ‘Create your world before [Hurricane] Katrina; then create your world after Katrina,” Roaten explains.

Roaten also uses trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy to help children and adolescents learn coping skills.

“You teach them about trauma and its impact on them,” she explains. “Then you teach them relaxation and breathing skills. Once you get them to be able to self-soothe, relax and be calm, you can help them deal with pictures or scenarios that come up. You help them change the story — what they are telling themselves and what that means — which helps them work through the trauma a little bit at a time.”

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Children’s trauma responses and intervention guidelines

 

Preschool through 2nd grade

Typical trauma responses:

  • Believes death is reversible
  • Magical thinking
  • Intense but brief grief responses
  • Worries others will die
  • Separation anxiety
  • Avoidance
  • Regressive symptoms
  • Fear of the dark
  • Reenactment through traumatic play

Intervention guidelines:

  • Give simple, concrete explanations as needed
  • Provide physical closeness
  • Allow expression through play
  • Read storybooks such as A Terrible Thing Happened, Brave Bart, Don’t Pop Your Cork on Monday

 

3rd through 6th grade

Typical trauma responses:

  • Asks a lot of questions
  • Begins to understand that death is permanent
  • Worries about own death
  • Increased fighting and aggression
  • Hyperactivity and inattentiveness
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • Reenactment though traumatic play

Intervention guidelines:

  • Give clear, accurate explanations
  • Allow expression through art, play or journaling
  • Read storybooks

 

Middle school

Typical trauma responses:

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Wide range of emotions
  • More verbal but still needs physical outlet
  • Arguments and fighting
  • Moodiness

Intervention guidelines:

  • Be accepting of moodiness
  • Be supportive and discuss when they are ready
  • Groups with structured activities or games

 

High school

Typical trauma responses:

  • Understands death is irreversible but believe it won’t happen to them
  • Depression
  • Risk-taking behaviors
  • Lack of concentration
  • Decline in responsible behavior
  • Apathy
  • Rebellion at home or school

Intervention guidelines:

  • Listen
  • Encourage expression of feelings
  • Groups with guiding questions and projects

 

Source: “Systematic Trauma Interventions for Children: A 10-Step Protocol,” by Jennifer Baggerly in Terrorism, Trauma and Tragedies: A Counselor’s Guide to Preparing and Responding, third edition, American Counseling Association Foundation, 201

 

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ACA Traumatology Interest Network

Counselors and counselors-in-training who have an interest in providing counseling services to trauma- or disaster-affected individuals and communities should consider joining the ACA Traumatology Interest Network. Network participants share insights, experiences, new plans and advances in trauma counseling services. For more information on joining the interest network, go to counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks.

 

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To contact individuals interviewed for this article, email:

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Triumph tales: Counselors’ domestic violence research project blossoms into website, social media campaign highlighting survivors’ personal stories

By Bethany Bray March 20, 2014

seethetriumphWhile surveying survivors of domestic violence for a recent research project, Allison Crowe and Christine Murray were thoroughly compelled by the stories they heard. So much so that they knew the stories should be shared with a wider audience rather than limited to publication in an academic journal.

In one case, an interviewee said she was fired because her employer didn’t want her abusive spouse showing up at the workplace to stalk her. In another case, a police officer asked a victim of domestic violence out on a date when she came to the station to file a report. Another participant said her doctor told her she was “stupid” for not leaving an abusive husband.

Crowe and Murray, counselor educators and American Counseling Association members who focus on domestic violence and family counseling, launched the “See the Triumph” campaign in January 2013.

While they still plan to publish their research — their article is currently undergoing peer review at a journal – the duo is putting much of their effort into managing a website and social media campaign to share their research findings and spread awareness of the complicated issues and stigma that surround domestic violence.

The project title, “See the Triumph,” is part of a quote from one of their interviewees, who spoke of the triumph of surviving abuse and starting life over.

“The stories that we heard were overwhelming,” says Crowe, an assistant professor of counseling at East Carolina University, a licensed professional counselor and an approved clinical supervisor. “I was taken aback by the poignancy of what these [people] experienced. When someone sees you as ‘she lets her husband beat her,’ people start forming ideas about you.”

Crowe and Murray surveyed more than 230 men and women for their research.

They believe the website and social media campaign offer more timely and immediate ways of sharing their data, while also allowing them to reach a wider population than those who read professional or academic journals.

“We had the data and felt like we needed to do more with it,” Crowe says. “We decided to spread the results in an innovative, nontraditional way. … We wanted to reach more people.”

Seethetriumph.org hosts a blog written by Crowe, Murray and guest bloggers. It also contains a plethora of information and links to resources about domestic violence, such as a “checklist” of questions domestic violence survivors can ask their potential counselors to see if they are properly trained to deal with such a complicated and nuanced issue.

Through their research, the duo has found that domestic violence survivors want –- sometimes even crave the chance — to “share their stories,” says Murray, an associate professor in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) Department of Counseling and Educational Development.

Participants felt validated by talking about what they had been through, says Murray, a licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist.

Additionally, some interviewees felt sharing what they had been through and overcome could help others who were still experiencing domestic violence, says Crowe.

“An incredible takeaway is how [survivors] want to help each other,” she says. “Their enthusiasm and passion for helping each other [and] doing what they can was really mind-blowing.”

Crowe and Murray continue to accept survivor narratives through a survey at seethetriumph.org. They are also launching another round of research focusing on immigrants’ perceptions of domestic violence, stigma and culture. A survey for first- and second-generation immigrants is posted on the See the Triumph home page.

Crowe and Murray’s research project began as an exploration of the term “stigma” and its connection to domestic violence.

“There’s a lot more than just blame in the term ‘stigma’,” Crowe explains. “[It involves] blame, discrimination, labeling, secrecy, shame, social exclusion, stereotyping and losing status or power.”

The duo conducted face-to-face interviews with domestic violence survivors about the stigma they experienced in general society as well as at the hands of professional helpers such as police officers, lawyers, medical personnel, mental health workers and others. Crowe and Murray spoke with 12 women, conducting hourlong interviews with each.

The interviews were poignant, says Crowe, and confirmed that many domestic violence survivors do experience stigma, such as the woman who was asked out on a date by the police officer she turned to for help.

Crowe and Murray then expanded their research, surveying more than 200 men and women in the United States and internationally who had experienced domestic violence. For this second round of research, they conducted an online survey with open-ended questions about stigma.

In case after case, interviewees talked of experiencing stigma, from the assumptions people made, such as the belief that abuse victims somehow invite or bring the abuse upon themselves, to a religious leader who told a victim it was her responsibility to keep her marriage to an abusive spouse together at all costs.

“Our results confirmed what we felt in the first round,” Crowe says. “Those results were unfortunate, but very important to us.”

The duo launched Seethetriumph.org and their social media campaign last year after receiving approval from their universities’ research boards.

“One really surprising and rewarding part of this has been the ability to be a part of someone’s healing,” says Crowe. “[The fact] that they can use this as a vehicle for healing is incredible. I think the role of advocate has really been brought out in me and Christine.”

 

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On the web: seethetriumph.org

 

Sample blog posts:

 

“Finding a counselor who is competent to serve survivors”

bit.ly/1gtBlsL

 

“Five things I wish I had known when I left”

bit.ly/1nU6oUp

 

“Being a victim, being a survivor and triumphing: The words that describe our experiences”

bit.ly/1fzP7y3

 

“Intimate partner violence affects everybody, even you”

bit.ly/1dViTfm

 

 

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See the April issue of Counseling Today for an in-depth feature article on counseling victims, survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence, to which Crowe and Murray contributed.

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline

 

Working with sexually abused children

Gregory K. Moffatt November 25, 2013

BearMateo (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.

Conclusion

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.

 

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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.

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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.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org