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Understanding child sexual abuse.

Here at Counselling Connections we are, like many of you, following with interest the public debate on the subject of child sexual abuse. We try to refrain from public comment because our interest in the area is in quietly and privately working with survivors. Much of the public discourse in Ireland on this subject for over a decade now has surrounded abuse by church figures and subsequent cover ups. These issues have been the driving force for major social change. This change continues; we are still in the middle of the storm so to speak. And only with more time will we as a society come out the far side and then be able to look back at these times and fully understand what has been happening; how we used to be and how we are now.
From our experience of working with survivors there are a couple of aspects of abuse which we can perhaps help to shed light on; things which if they were better known would help the wider understanding of what happens in abuse and hopefully make it easier for people to come forward. The first of these is the very peculiar psychological hold which an abuser exercises over his/her victim.
We are familiar generally with the term ‘grooming’ and the idea that an abuser will spend some time trying to charm and earn the trust of a potential victim. The child can be manipulated into feeling quite special and having been specifically chosen by this adult. Repeat offenders will become accustomed to what traits or vulnerabilities to watch out for in their victim. It is often something which is difficult to come to terms with later in therapy as the full realisation of this process dawns. But at the time, initially at least the abuser’s real motivation has not yet been revealed and the child can feel quite special.
This is where it gets confusing. The psychological hold that the abuser relies on for secrecy is kept in place by fear. Sometimes this is enforced with either a threat of or a display of violence. The child is taught in no uncertain terms that they cannot even contemplate crossing this angry, frightening, powerful adult. We believe that what happens here is actually a sophisticated survival mechanism. Given the odds and their relative weakness in the face of the power of the adult, the child gives over their will completely. The abuser knows this, and plays on it.
A particularly difficult aspect of this psychological hold is that the child feels that in being powerless to act that they have in some way allowed the abuse to happen. This is not true. We can see that this is not true when we look at the size of the child compared to the power of the adult but this does not stop abusers from making children feel responsible for their own abuse. This is one of the major reasons why it is difficult for survivors to come forward to report abuse. The abuser knows this and plays on it. The child may feel like they will get into trouble if they tell and sadly time and again this fear has proven to be true. This needs to be changed.
If the psychological hold of the abuser is one thing that needs to be better understood so too does, what we here at counselling connections we call, ‘The Language of Abuse’. This is a difficult thing to describe. We feel that it is not well known or understood. If we take it that what we describe about the fear of coming forward is true then imagine what ways a child will, at different times try to let people know about what has been done to them. Some of their understandings of what happened will be couched in the language and understandings of their age; they won’t have the vocabulary or understanding of sexual matters to say it out straight.
Additionally, revelations will often only be made obliquely because the child or vulnerable adult even years later is still expecting that they themselves will be blamed or that they won’t be believed or understood. This means that a particular kind of language is used, often in a kind of code in referring to what was done. This is what we call The Language of Abuse and we feel that the subtleties of it need to be better understood in order to facilitate people in coming forward to tell their own story. It is important to believe a child, it is important just to let them talk and not to lead them. If someone is revealing details of sexual abuse to you they will be watching your reactions very, very closely. If they fear your reaction they will stop talking and often withdraw what they have already said.
This applies equally to adult survivors who reveal their stories years later and who will have a lifetime of experience of living with abuse. There is much more to be understood in this very complex field but these two points, the psychological hold of the abuser and the language of abuse are two particular aspects that, if they were widely well understood would we hope make it easier for people to come forward. If you have been abused and would like to seek counselling see our contact details or online booking for details of how to make an appointment to come to see us. Or look for qualified counsellors in your own area.
Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

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