If you are a survivor of child abuse, in any form, firstly may I acknowledge your bravery and determination in clicking the link. Children are commonly told they must not tell, they must carry a dark secret not of their making. Reaching out, to learn, to understand, to get help, is an act of courage when your formative years included an abuser using silence as a tool and a weapon.
What is child abuse?
It seems a simple question, but it is not. Behaviour in one age, one culture, one society, which is considered acceptable or normal is considered abuse by another. A good example is cited by Gelles and Lancaster around sleeping norms
For example in the United States it would be not be unusual to find a social worker arguing that if a family situation is such that a mother shares a bed with her three young children, this is evidence of a neglectful environment. Among parents in the United States the normative sleeping arrangement for children is that they have their own beds. However among the Kung it would be thought unimaginable and even abusive if a parent were to put an infant into a bed and put the child to sleep in a dark, separate room. (Gelles, Lancaster 1987)
An experience some people have is of being told that an experience they had was not abusive. This can be abusive in itself, memories are invalidated, or people are told they are exaggerating, making a fuss, turning a mountain into a molehill. Unfortunately even some therapists and counselors will respond this way, invalidating a survivors experience.
So what is child abuse? Child abuse is, in my view, and in a therapeutic context, experiences from childhood which at the time, or in later life, negatively impact on someone in such a way that causes them emotional, psychological or physical harm. As a therapist it is vital I neither interpret, compare, invalidate or try to excuse behaviour. A therapists role is to walk alongside someone as they explore what their childhood meant to them. I feel it is also important to say that victims can be any gender, as can abusers, despite the common narratives about all victims being girls and all abusers men.
Can Counselling Help?
Some people may wish to leave their past behind them, and believe that counselling will only dredge up things they prefer to forget. Perhaps because of the way the media portrays therapists a belief has grown up that unless you dredge up every event from your childhood you will never heal. Some people have, sadly, been re-abused by the experience of therapy, forced to confront painful memories to please the therapist or to prove some theory. Some people want to talk about their past, others don’t. I believe counselling should go where you lead, not push you into areas you are not ready for. At the same time many people discover that in the theraputic space they discover they are far stronger than they believed possible, and can face their past finally. Whether you wish to work on how you feel now, past experiences, or a combination of the two, counselling has been shown to be immensely beneficial to survivors of child abuse.
Peeling the Onion
Often survivors of an abusive childhood will engage in more than one period of therapy. It can be likened to peeling an onion, one layer may be dealt with while another lies beneath. This can seem demoralizing, the human desire to be “fixed” is strong. It is perfectly normal though, in many ways it is our own minds protecting us, allowing us to only work with what we are able to deal with at any time. Life events can often be the push for starting, or returning to therapy. As Susan G Crocombe writes here, the birth of her child caused her to reach out for the first time.. As well as parenthood bereavement can be a significant moment in the journey of a survivor, particularly the death of an abuser. Other events which may only be significant to us may prove to the trigger to working with a therapist.
The important thing to remember is that this process of peeling is not a failure, or a step back. It is actually a brave step towards healing childhood wounds.
Boundaries and Therapy
Good boundaries are important in all therapeutic relationships, they are vital in working with survivors of abuse. Having lived with violated boundaries, without respect, any intimate relationship can be difficult for survivors. Clear contracting, explicit understanding of when, and how contact outside of the therapy can take place, and respect at all times for the clients power to say no is vital when working with survivors.
Deciding to go into counselling is a courageous step whatever your life experiences are, for survivors of child abuse it can prove to be life saving and life changing