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Stolen Innocence: Helping A Child Recover from Sexual Trauma

When a child's innocence is stolen through sexual abuse, it affects self-worth, personality development, socialization and achievement. It can later impact intimacy in their adolescent and adult relationships. Sexual trauma is a sacred wound. It is an intrusion into a child’s deepest, most delicate and private parts.

Shattering the Myths about Sexual Violence against Children

The problem is, our society is beset by myths about sexual violence against children and hampered by the twin dilemma of secrecy and shame. Sexual violations are not perpetrated solely by a “dirty old man” or a “dangerous stranger” luring a child into his car with the promise of candy. Sadly, strangers are seldom the problem. Sexual trauma can result any time that anyone takes advantage of their position of trust, age or status to lead a child into a situation of real or perceived powerlessness around issues of sex and humiliation. It is not uncommon in the “perfect” family. And most sex offenders are “nice” people that you already know.

Nor is sexual assault limited to female children around puberty. Both genders and an alarming percentage of preschoolers and school-age children have been sexually violated in some way.

In other words, all children are vulnerable and sexual trauma may occur to any child regardless of culture, socio-economic status or religion. And since 85 to 90% of sexual violations and inappropriate “boundary crossings” are by someone they know and trust, the symptoms are layered with the complexity of the repercussions of betrayal. Even if not admonished or threatened to keep the assault secret, children often do not tell due to embarrassment, shame and guilt. In their naiveté, they mistakenly assume that they are “bad” and will carry the shame that ought to belong to the molester. Children may fear punishment and reprisal, and they frequently anguish over betraying someone who is part of their family or social circle.

The Twin Dilemma of Secrecy and Shame

The sexual molestation of children has the added shroud of secrecy. Since 85 to 90% of sexual violations and inappropriate "boundary crossings" are by someone they know and trust, the symptoms are layered with the complexity of the repercussions of betrayal. Even if not admonished (or threatened) to keep the assault secret, children of ten do not tell due to embarrassment, shame, and guilt. In their naiveté they mistakenly assume that they are "bad." They carry the shame that belongs to the molester. In addition, children fear punishment and reprisal. They frequently anguish over "betraying" someone who is part of their family or social circle and fantasize what might happen to their perpetrator. This is especially true if it is a family member they are dependent on. If not a family member, the violator is usually someone well known. Neighbors, older children, babysitters, a parent's boyfriend, and other friends of the family or step-family are frequently the offenders. Or it may be someone who has prestige and social status, or serves as a mentor, such as a religious leader, teacher, or athletic coach. How can children know-unless you teach them-that they are not to blame when the perpetrator is usually not only someone known, but someone who may be revered? Parents can pave the way to safety for their children by teaching them to trust and act on their own instincts versus submitting to an older child or adult who is using their status for their own gratification.

Prevention Begins with Healthy Boundaries

There are ways to prevent as well as heal sexual trauma in children. In terms of preventive measures, we can, as parents and caregivers, teach children to Model Healthy Boundaries so that they know that no one gets to touch, handle or look at them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. And we can help them develop good Sensory Awareness so that they get to trust their own feelings, like that sense of dread in the gut or the rapid heartbeat, alerting them that something is wrong and they need to leave and get help. We can also better inform children about sexual violation in general; for example, what it is and who might approach them. We can teach children what to say and do, and offer them opportunities to practice their right to say “No.”

Of course, parents need to show good boundaries themselves, respect children’s need for privacy (especially beginning between the ages of five to seven), and support them when they are in situations that are unappealing or when they are defenseless to help themselves. We should always let our children know that they can talk to us openly, so that we can keep them safe and help them with their feelings.

Healing the Emotional Wounds of Sexual Abuse Through The Body

When sexual abuse has occurred, there are techniques available to us that can help children heal the emotional wounds. Trauma does not have to last a lifetime. Trauma in children has been successfully overcome through Somatic Experiencing, a technique that has been developed over several decades through research and practical application. The word somatic refers to the body, to sensations, feelings and touch. Research has revealed that healing actually takes place in the body, not in the mind. It’s part of our animal nature kicking in, the “fight or flight” survival mechanism that all animals share, from zebras and cheetahs to human beings. Essentially, the body has a set of responses that it must go through each time the animal is threatened. If this sequence is not completed in any way, then the animal is literally “stuck in the moment.” We humans know this as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It can happen to anyone, from Iraqi war veterans to the victim of a mugging, a motor vehicle accident, or sexual assault.

Recognizing the Somatic Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

Children who have experienced sexual trauma are prone to somatic symptoms from physical rigidity, awkwardness, or excessive weight gain or loss, born of a conscious or unconscious attempt to “lock out” others and to ignore the body. Also common is the tendency to live in a fantasy world, have problems with attention, space out, daydream or dissociate in order to compartmentalize their awful experience. By using a guided process of articulating and expressing the sensations they are feeling in the body, children are able to literally “unlock” and free themselves from the event.

Talking to Your Child

If you have been putting off talking with your children about sexual molestation until they are older or because you are uncomfortable with the topic, or if you have a child who has been sexually abused, Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes will give you the insight you need in order to talk to your child or to work through the aftermath of a traumatic event. Rich with case studies and hands-on activities, the book explains how trauma is imprinted on the body, brain, and spirit and provides valuable insight into children’s innate ability to rebound with the appropriate support. It provides parents, caregivers, educators and health professionals with the tools to recognize, prevent and overcome childhood trauma.

Trauma Through a Child's Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing.
Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline
North Atlantic Books, 2007

 

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SOMATIC EXPERIENCING® TRAUMA INSTITUTE
6685 Gunpark Drive Suite 102
Boulder, CO 80301
Phone: 303-652-4035
Fax: 303-652-4039
E-mail: info@traumahealing.com
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