South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

How children cope with the pain of sexual assault

For Family & Friends, Female Survivors, Male Survivors, Teachers, Workers

Tags: Child Development, Child Sexual Abuse, Counselling, Mental Health

Author: South Eastern CASA

Simplistically stated, to survive a child has to develop psychological defense mechanisms. These defense mechanisms help them survive during the abuse, and in maintaining a balance between feeling and expressing stored pain and continuing to function in daily life. The three major defenses commonly used are:

  • Memory Suppression
  • Dissociation and
  • Denial

Memory Suppression is a motivated forgetting of the overwhelming emotional states experienced during, or as a result of, the abuse experience. It is a way of keeping the pain of abuse away from day to day conscious awareness.

Dissociation is a way in which some children survive abuse by escaping mentally while the abuse is happening. The body and the mind seem to separate. While the body is being hurt, the child no longer feels it because the mind manages to "escape" to a perceived safe place. Different children may dissociate in different ways. One example is "leaving" the body and floating on the ceiling over the bed where the abuse is occurring. The child may even watch what is happening but it is as if it were happening to someone else. The child is able to feel nothing. So even though they may remember aspects of the abuse experience it is as if it happened to someone else.

Denial defends a survivor mentally against the pain of abuse by either denying the reality of the abuse (it didn't really happen) or minimising the pain of the abuse (it wasn't that bad). Denial is a formidable defense which is actively reinforced by the secrecy surrounding childhood sexual abuse socio-culturally. It is an effective way for the survivor to keep the abuse a secret from themselves.

The unfortunate paradox of the defenses is that while they are protection from the pain of abuse they greatly diminish the ability to have a full and happy life as maintaining the defenses and containing such raw emotions takes an enormous amount of energy. Maintaining this balance is what is called SURVIVAL LIVING and anything that threatens to tip the scale of this sort of inner struggle is experienced as threatening. This explains many of the secondary consequences of abuse (reactions to abuse and subsequent thought patterns and behaviours).

The tragedy of sexual assault means that although children may block out the memory of the assault the feelings associated with it are not so easily forgotten. Before children are able to proceed with their lives they need to have made sense of what has happened. If their feelings are not explored then the sense the child makes of the assault tends to be that it was their fault and that it happened because they are bad. In the long term that is what makes things worse.

During counselling there may be a time when a child does appear more distressed because difficult feelings are being explored. The alternative is for those feelings to be ignored or repressed which can then re-emerge years later. This may cause serious relationship problems with the self, and with other people.

The only way for children to genuinely put the assault behind them is when they resolve the feelings associated with their trauma. They need to achieve an understanding of why it happened and why it happened to them. Children also need to know that all the feelings they have are normal.

Counselling is recommended for children and adults at those ages designated as developmental milestones, such as pre-puberty, puberty and late adolescence. For adults other milestones include engagement/marriage, childbirth, or having a child reach the same age as when the survivor was abused, or indeed if their own child discloses abuse.

Counselling is so important!

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