Therapy for a Sexually Abused Child May Not Be Best

Therapy sessions involve plenty of talking. Sexually abused children are believed to improve if they share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with their therapist. But what happens when the child doesn’t trust the therapist? What happens if the child is unable to express themselves correctly verbally? Will therapy still be helpful for such a child?

Many guardians of sexually abused children are quick to take their kids to see a therapist out of genuine care and concern. In fact, many child protective services agency social workers, and even judges, will require the parent or guardian to put the child in therapy. However, therapy could be doing their children more harm than good. Psychotherapy has proven benefits for both kids and adults, but when it comes to acknowledging its shortcomings, many choose to bury their heads in the sand.

Let’s take a closer look at the risks associated with therapy and why it may not be best for sexually abused children.

Worsening Symptoms

When a child is sexually abused, they can experience severe trauma. Going to therapy as an intervention to help the child cope or recover can yield positive results. On the other hand, therapy can trigger feelings, memories, or thoughts that can end up worsening the child’s symptoms.

Children may also develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when they are forced to recount their abuse experiences time and time again. All a child wants to do is forget their experience in the hands of their abuser. However, as part of counseling, they are encouraged to process their emotions. Sometimes the therapist even causes children to dramatize their traumatic events.

Therapy forces the child to focus on their crisis, something that can easily cause a child’s mild symptoms to become potent.

Dependency on a Therapist

Therapy can drag on for months or even years. These frequent sessions become part of the child’s routine. Slowly the child starts to develop strong feelings for their therapist. They think of them as their close friends, their confidants, and in some cases, their guardians. Therapists expect this and actually consider it normal.

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But what happens when for some reason, the child has to cease attending counseling sessions? This leaves the abused child emotionally vulnerable. As a result, they may retaliate by developing bad habits, hate other people, and face difficulty building relationships.

The effects of developing codependency can cause the child to spiral out of control when they no longer have access to their therapist.

Development of New issues

Some therapy techniques require the child to recount events and endure strong negative emotions. The goal is for the child to release all the anger, resentment, self-hate, fear, and, other negative emotions. Therapy exercises may even involve throwing rocks into the water, punching pillows, or breaking glass. Some kids feel relieved afterward. Alternatively, other kids develop an unhealthy craving to release more. Eventually, instead of recovering, they become angrier or more frustrated.

The potential risks of such uncontrollable feelings is that, when the exercises no longer serve their purpose, the child begins to want to hurt themselves and may even try to commit suicide.

In some instances, the child who has suffered sexual abuse may also develop Dissociative Identity Disorder during therapy. They develop different personalities in their minds, only allowing some personalities to come out while those personalities that represent their pain remain hidden.

Refusing to Seek Further Treatment in Future

In a 2007 paper, Thomas Oellerich challenges the benefit of therapy for sexually abused kids by asking, if it remains effective even when a professional recommends it. He argues that the empirical data available doesn’t show that therapy is the ultimate solution for sexually abused children, even though many experts continue to insist that it is. (See Thomas Oellerich. Rethinking the Routine Provision of Psychotherapy to Children/Adolescents Labeled “Sexually Abused.” International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy. Volume 3, No. 1, 2007.)

Older children can have reservations when it comes to therapy. Some don’t see the point of going to therapy while others don’t want to subject their parents to the financial burdens of having to pay for therapy, and others fear facing stigma if their friends know why they are going to treatment.

For these reasons, some children will refuse to go to therapy. They’ll attend a few sessions but will refuse to proceed with it in the future-especially when they become aware of the challenges therein and the time and finances they have to invest.

Therapists are free to choose whichever therapeutic techniques they deem to be effective, but they may not always be right. While therapy sometimes helps a child identify and work through their issues, it doesn’t always arm them with the necessary tools to resolve and get over them. If that happens, the child may refuse to seek further counseling because they consider it ineffective.

Therapy May Complicate the Recovery Process for a Sexually Abused Child

Not all sexually abused children will suffer emotional and mental trauma, but that risk is always inherent. It’s important to watch out for signs of stress, anxiety, and other mental health conditions before recommending therapy. Otherwise, children who have suffered sexual abuse should be helped to heal without having to recount the horrific details of their encounter with an abuser.

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