Most people never tell anyone. Childhood sexual abuse affects 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 6 men, yet the majority of people who were abused as children don’t talk about what happened to them.
Children are frequently (and understandably) fearful about the possibility of retaliation and further abuse if they tell someone. They might carry a misplaced sense of self-blame for the abuse, or stay silent due to family loyalty.
Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often experience anger, grief and shame about what happened to them… and about not speaking up. Or speaking up, but not always being believed or protected from further abuse.
It’s never too late to talk about your experience.
To heal, and recover from the unspeakable trauma you were subjected to as a child.
Many sexual abuse survivors bury their feelings and memories deep within, and get on with their lives and relationships as best they can. Yet childhood sexual abuse is one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can go through. If your experience as a child is affecting your ability to be in the present moment, have healthy relationships and live a life of your choosing, talking to a trained counsellor is the most surefire first step on the path to recovery.
Childhood sexual abuse and complex post-traumatic stress
Clinical psychologist Judith Herman’s groundbreaking research on the effects of childhood sexual abuse likens the after-effects of abuse to being the victim of an act of terrorism.
Complex post-traumatic stress symptoms include:
- Hyperarousal and sensitivity to reminders of the abuse
- Damaged sense of self-worth and confidence
- Increased likelihood of self-medication, or other compulsive behaviours
- Vulnerability to anxiety, depression and panic
- Impaired ability to form and maintain intimate relationships
- Negative views of sexual self
- Sexual dysfunction as an adult
Specialist sexual abuse counselling can help adult survivors process and come to terms with what happened to them as a child in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. The following video is an excellent guide to the healing benefits of specialist support, as discussed by mental health professionals with lived experience of childhood sexual abuse:
Trauma recovery counselling model
Judith Herman conceptualised a triphasic model of sexual abuse recovery. Her research is supported by other leaders in the field of trauma work, including Bessel Van Der Kolk and Janina Fisher. A recent neuroscientific study has also demonstrated that there’s significant biopsychological evidence supporting positive outcomes from this approach to trauma recovery.
Trauma recovery occurs in three stages. It’s not always a linear process: specialist sexual abuse counselling is responsive to whatever comes up for you in each session, and the therapeutic approach is tailored to support your needs in every moment.
Stage One: Creating safety
Stage One establishes a relationship of safety and trust between you and your counsellor. This stage involves setting some goals for the counselling process, and identifying potential pathways to achieving them.
The first stage of recovery will equip you with skills to:
- Establish a sense of safety in your own body, and in your relationships with others
- Draw on your inner strength and resilience, and develop new psychological coping strategies
- Regulate any painful emotions associated with memories of the abuse
- Address unwanted behaviours such as substance use, relationship conflict, depression, anxiety, and disassociation
The initial stage of recovery focuses on validating what you’ve been through, providing education and resources about the recovery process, and fostering a sense of confidence in your ability to heal from what happened to you as a child.
Stage two: Remembrance and mourning
Stage two involves processing the experience you had as a child, so that the past no longer has the power to disrupt your present reality in distressing and unwanted ways.
The second stage of recovery provides specialist support to help you:
- Work through the impact of abuse by transforming the emotions and beliefs associated with your memories
- Effectively process any anger, shame or self-blame you’ve been carrying
- Grieve the childhood that you were denied. This includes exploring the complex range of feelings you may have towards the abuser, your parents and other family members
- Re-assess the abuse, including why it happened and who was responsible
- Acknowledging that your behaviour as a child was a coping mechanism, an act of survival
Some people find it helpful to discuss their childhood experiences in this stage of recovery, but others may not want or need to talk directly about the abuse.
The decision rests with you. Sexual abuse recovery is about reclaiming your personal power and safety from the traumatic events of your childhood in a safe and structured way.
You know yourself better than anyone.
Client-centred, strengths-based counselling focuses on supporting you and your recovery process by respecting your personal boundaries and insights about the most helpful path forward.
Stage Three: Reconnection with ordinary life
Stage three is about re-engaging with the wider world again. Living daily life to the fullest. Once you’ve worked through the experience you had as a child – its impacts on your life, sense of self and relationships as an adult – this final stage of the trauma recovery process involves reconnection.
The coping skills and personal growth experienced in Stages One and Two are the foundation for your future – enhanced self-confidence, improved relationships, and confidence in your ability to define yourself and your life on your own terms.
Speaking about your experience of childhood sexual abuse can feel confronting and painful. Processing what happened to you also takes courage and determination.
Breaking years of silence can also bring feelings of immense relief.
Choosing to seek recovery support for childhood sexual abuse is, ultimately, an act of power. Counselling can help you to move through unresolved feelings about what happened, and reduce post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Specialist sexual abuse counselling supports you to re-define who you are:
Not a victim, but a survivor.
Childhood sexual abuse recovery research resources:
Daigneault, I., Dion, J., Hébert, M., & Bourgeois, C. (2016). Mindfulness as mediator and moderator of post-traumatic symptomatology in adolescence following childhood sexual abuse or assault. Mindfulness, 7(6), 1306-1315.
Herman, J. L. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of traumatic stress, 5(3), 377-391.
Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence–from domestic abuse to political terror. Hachette UK.
Marriott, C., Hamilton‐Giachritsis, C., & Harrop, C. (2014). Factors promoting resilience following childhood sexual abuse: A structured, narrative review of the literature. Child Abuse Review, 23(1), 17-34.
Zaleski, K. L., Johnson, D. K., & Klein, J. T. (2016). Grounding Judith Herman’s trauma theory within interpersonal neuroscience and evidence-based practice modalities for trauma treatment. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 86(4), 377-393.