Child Sexual Abuse - Is Recovery Possible?

by Sheri_Oz

While it is hard and often painful work, healing from childhood sexual abuse is certainly possible.

Some victim advocates, therapists and researchers claim that victims of sexual trauma can never get over it... that they are forever destined to daily relive the horrors in flashbacks and nightmares and will never be able to live a normal life.

I do not agree. For over 25 years, I have worked almost exclusively with sex trauma victims and their families. While sexual abuse is traumatic and shakes the very foundations of individuals, families and society, it is not a life sentence where the victim is caught in its web forever and ever.

There is a good, healthy, happy, satisfying life waiting to be lived even after horrendous victimization.

Is Child Sexual Abuse a Form of Soul Murder?

Some professionals and advocacy groups call rape and child sexual abuse soul murder;. They say that children who were abused never return to normal. Supporting this view are the several documentary films produced in Israel (and perhaps documentaries in other countries as well) about the long-lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse. Shown on television, these films were instrumental in raising awareness of the problem of child sexual abuse and inspiring social intervention and the investment of funds for the identification and treatment of children who were abused.

However, the general impression given in these films is that survivors never get over it. The intelligent, strong women telling their stories in these documentaries leave one with the overall impression that they have given up on the possibility of truly healing from the trauma. While they do not seem actively suicidal, they were certainly depressed, existing in a kind of "living death".

Children do not go back to being they way they were before they were abused. Their developmental path certainly takes on a different direction than it would have had, had they not suffered sexual maltreatment.

But that does not necessarily imply a tragic end to the story, rather a different trajectory than without the abuse.

Given the right conditions, the survivor can come out of the nightmare stronger and more able to handle life's difficulties than before.

There is a saying in Hebrew that goes, "What does not kill us empowers us". And a colleague and friend wrote a book entitled "Strong at the Broken Places" (Linda T. Sanford).

My Clinical Experience Has Shown Me That Healing from Sexual Trauma is Possible

Yes, there is no denying that child sexual abuse is usually experienced as a traumatic event and we want to protect our children from trauma. However, there most certainly can be a positive outcome for the survivor of sexual maltreatment.

Perhaps one of the most important factors in healing is the response of others when the abuse is disclosed. This is true for abuse disclosed while the child is still a minor as well as disclosures in adulthood. For this reason, most clinical interventions today make parental guidance a central element in the therapy with children and teenagers who were sexually abused.

Given their significance to the recovery process, family and friends need to be helped to understand that in spite of the abuse, people can overcome what was done to them and build healthy and satisfying lives.

It is impossible to overemphasize the important of "attitude": Attitudes and beliefs held by supportive others affects the attitudes and beliefs of the survivor.

The best attitude is: while it is hard and often painful work, healing is possible.

What are the Characteristics of Healing?

Recovery from the impact of child sexual abuse means having more balance. The survivor:

will still get sad but not devastated.

will get angry but not enraged.

will have the confidence to ask for what he or she wants and needs and will be able to accept "no" as an answer.

will be able to say "no" when they do not want to do something, be with somebody, etc.

will be able to trust people and will know how to check whether or not people are trustworthy.

will be able to be alone without feeling isolated and cut off from the world.

will be able to get close to others and not lose sense of themselves.

will be able to talk about what is bothering them rather than rage about it or leave in a huff.

Of course, all of these points depend on the age of the survivor and we would not expect children and teenagers to achieve a higher level of maturity than their peers. The important point is that this balance can be achieved and recovery can happen.

Recovery is a Spiral-like Process

This means that children and adolescents will need to rework at later stages of development issues they had already resolved at an earlier age. With increasing maturity, children and teens can understand aspects of their traumatic experiences that they were not able to understand at an earlier age. For that reason, they may seem to regress, to go back to symptoms they had already got past.

This is not regression, in fact, just a sign that deeper healing is now possible.

Also, during adulthood, many survivors go back to therapy for short "booster" sessions at significant turning points in life - marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, a child reaching the age at which their abuse began, a child reaching the age at which their abuse ended, etc.

This is normal and to be expected. When children, parents, and members of the extended family understand this, these turns on the spiral are reworked much more easily and with less pain.

"It is not what happens to us that determines our fate, but what we do with what happens to us."

This statement, made in about the year, 100 CE, by the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, is as true today as it was then.

Updated: 10/04/2012, Sheri_Oz
 
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Sheri_Oz on 10/14/2012

Thanks for your comment, Arlene. I am also heartbroken when I see how the official interventions for kids who have abused other kids ignores the traumas these acting-out kids have suffered. You are so right - anger management is certainly not the approach that will really help them.

Guest on 10/13/2012

This is so well-written, and I liked the fact that there is hope in the "Characteristics of Healing." For about a year, I worked with young men who had been sexually abused as children, and were sent to the California Youth Authority for sexually abusing babies and children. It was the worst job I had in my life, and I was glad to get out. I certainly did not have the tools to help my caseload, but reading an article like this would have been a lot more helpful than the anger management material offered by the Department. The damage was done. It was heartbreaking to know that all of these boys were going to prison with permanent "Rs" in their jackets.

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