Can a Child Recover from the Effects of Sexual Abuse?

Yes, with help and understanding, children can heal

It is important to recognize that not all children are affected the same way by sexual trauma.  Children are resilient by nature and have the potential to heal and recover if offered help and support in a timely fashion. How you respond to your child can have a profound impact on how able they are to recover from abuse. By taking some key steps early on you can help strengthen your child’s trust, sense of safety and potential for healing. The lives of children who have been sexually abused will be changed, but as with other types of traumatic events, there are many wonderful examples of adults who have healed from childhood abuse and are living healthy and productive lives.

While children recognize unpleasant or frightening feelings they may not have a full concept of child sexual abuse until adulthood. Some children may be ready to talk about the abuse and deal with it soon after it happens. Others may need to move more slowly, gradually testing the safety of their relationships and addressing the issues as they unfold over time. Children do best with a combination of love from caregivers and support from a counselor with a specialization working with children who have experienced sexual trauma.

As a parent, you have the power to help. Expressing your love, comforting them, being sensitive to their feelings and vulnerabilities are important ways for you to support your child. Tell your child often how much you love them. In addition, here are some specific things you can do to help your child with the recovery process.

What you can do to help your child recover

Tell your child that they are not to blame for the abuse.

Even though children are never, ever to blame, it’s not always easy to convince them of this, and they’ll probably need to hear it from you many times. This is because children often feel that they’re to blame for what has happened. They tend to feel responsible not only for the actual abuse, but for causing pain to people they love once the abuse has been uncovered. This is especially true when family members have separated as a result of the abuse. Shouldering guilt for the abuse and its consequences is an intolerable and unfair burden for children to bear. Without intervention, these children are more likely to suffer more serious, long-term emotional effects.

Step in to help your child find relief from guilt.

When adults take responsibility for what has happened this helps the children to find relief from guilt.  As a parent you can take an important step to help your child heal by reassuring them that they are not to blame for the abuse and it was the older person's responsibility to stop it. You might emphasize that any changes that have resulted from the abuse are because of the abuser’s behaviors – and not because of what the child did or did not do. Because of the child-centered way that young children make sense of the world around them, they naturally place themselves as the “cause” of much of what they experience. Because of this developmental tendency to take responsibility for things over which they have no control, (bad weather, parents fighting, financial woes), this message may have to be repeated over time and in different ways.

Make sure your child knows that you believe them.

The act of abuse was a profound betrayal of your child’s trust. More than ever, your child needs to know that you believe in them, and that they can trust you and count on you. By acknowledging the harm that was done to your child and by getting them help and taking steps to protect them, you will be helping your child re-establish a sense of trust and safety.

Help your child see that you’re someone they can talk to.

If your child has been abused, provide opportunities for conversation, but let your child be the one to bring up the subject. If they do, listen to them carefully, let them express their feelings, answer their questions as best you can and comfort them. Sometimes parents think that talking about the abuse will cause children more pain or “just make things worse”. But children need to know that there is a loving parent or adult with whom they can be honest, and who will acknowledge their pain and accept their feelings.

Let your child know you will do whatever you can to keep them safe

This is very tough if you’re not sure how fully you’ll be able to safeguard them. Without making false promises, make sure your child knows that you are committed and determined to take whatever steps you can to protect them. When a child sees caring adults acknowledging the abuse and taking steps to intervene, the child learns that they are worth protecting.

Support your child by getting them treatment

Observe your child to see if they are showing signs of emotional distress. If their feelings or behaviors are concerning to you or others, consider bringing them to a specialist who can offer the child a safe place to express themselves, and offer the you some guidance and support to help your child recover.