Child sexual abuse devastates the lives of thousands of children every year. Whether it occurs within a family or outside the home, the effects of sexual abuse can instigate an array of challenges in the young minds that are unprepared to cope with them. If left untreated, a sexually abused child may experience a host of developmental complications. For instance, many children get caught in a cycle of being dependent upon the person who is abusing them while at the same time being disgusted by the behavior. This creates unbearable shame, confusion and pain in the victim. To overcome these experiences, the issue must be accepted, the abuse must cease and the child should receive help from a healthcare professional.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, or AACAP, roughly 80,000 instances of child sexual abuse are reported each year. Unfortunately, many cases go unreported, so even this disturbing figure does not paint an accurate portrait of the problem's severity. Most times, a child is too afraid to tell anyone the abuse has occurred or is occurring and legal hurdles - such as proving or disproving that such an event happened - can prove even more challenging. However, identifying the problem is the first step to dealing with it and there are some signs that a child may have been sexually abused. These include: depression, seductiveness, abnormal fascination or avoidance of sexuality, secretiveness and suicidal behavior.
Before asking a child if he or she has been a victim of sexual abuse, the AACAP recommends that parents or professional do everything in their power to make the child feel safe. If a parent learns their child has been molested, maintaining composure and telling the child that they are not to blame are encouraged responses. Soon after, parents are advised to seek a medical examination and psychiatric consultation for their child.
According to Dr. Judith Cohen - Medical Director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children at Allegheny General Hospital - treatments vary from child to child and no single psychotherapy is infallible. However, Dr. Cohen advocates Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or TF-CBT, as suitable treatment in most cases. According to her, the program begins by teaching the child and parent that their reactions and experiences are normal. This helps the child and parent to understand they are not responsible for what happened. The treatment continues with regulation and relaxation, which helps the child recognize his or her reactions to the trauma.
The treatment progresses until the child is able to discuss the abuse itself by describing to the medical professional what happened and how it made them feel. This process helps the child to shine light on and face the trauma rather than push it away. According to Dr. Cohen, more than 2,500 clinicians have been trained in this approach. More information on this treatment and others is available at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network's website at NCTSN.org. In deciding on a treatment program, Dr. Cohen advises parents to select one that is trauma-focused and directive rather than gimmicky or superficial.