Unfortunately, one of the most frequent reasons parents or guardians seek out play therapy at Family Strategies Counseling & Mediation is because their child is a survivor of sexual abuse. Play is fundamental to the way children process their world, and so we use Play Therapy to help them process their traumas.
The Stages of Play Therapy for Sexual Abuse Survivors
In some ways, each child is different and responds to abuse differently. In other ways, children who are survivors of sexual abuse are very similar in the way they progress through Play Therapy treatment. Our play area is full of toys, puppets, crafting materials, and hundreds of miniatures. The first question we ask them is usually, “What would you like to play with today?” Most children will choose a toy easily they are interested in playing with. The idea here is to give them control over this space – they are allowed to play, or not play, in any way they wish.
Stage One: Establishing Trust
Many parents are convinced their child will not speak to anyone about the abuse that occurred. In fact, most children open up within the first few sessions of play therapy. Why? These children want to talk to someone about what happened, and often times it is easier to speak to someone new than to divulge this information to a parent or guardian.
Stage Two: Symptom Reduction
The child has come to our office for a reason – and generally, this reason is that they have developed negative symptoms in response to the abuse. Signs a child might need a therapist include:
- Irregular Sleeping or Eating Habits
- Sudden inattentiveness or aggressive behaviors at school
- Excessive fighting with siblings
- Bed Wetting after being toilet trained
- New or unusual fears of certain people or places
- Thinks of self or body as disgusting, dirty, or bad
Each child’s response is different and can occur at varying degrees. One method we use is Cognitive Behavior Therapy. We talk with the child to help them put a name to what they feel, so they can begin to understand it. We help guide the child through what they should do in certain situations. For example:
Therapist: “What should we do when we feel too angry to listen to the teacher’s directions?”
Child: “Maybe I can ask her for a time out.”
Children are very intuitive and capable of understanding that “we” is actually “I”. The idea here is to help the child land on their solution to a problem. If it is their idea, they are more likely to believe it will work and implement it.
Stage Three: Processing The Abuse
When something traumatic or significant happens to us, we often want to relive that moment by talking about it. Young children do not have the language to talk about these things, and instead, they will act out the incident through dramatic play. They are quite literally replaying their traumas. We encourage children to talk while they play, and describe to us what the toys are doing. Oftentimes, we can uncover that the motivation behind a negative behavior is the child’s attempt to replay and process what happened to them.
Stage Four: Closure
Once the child has developed useful coping strategies, the child is ready to work towards closure. Closure for each child can look different, but in general, there is a reduction in symptoms and destructive behaviors. At this point, the sessions are wrapped up, and there is a farewell from the therapist. Ideally, the child has a significant support system in place. Parents or guardians have learned how to manage their child’s response to triggering situations and how to help guide them through rough patches.
Each child’s journey through play therapy for sexual abuse will be as different as they are. In general, there are four distinct stages a child passes through when they begin working through their trauma. First, the therapist must earn the child’s trust by creating a safe environment where the child feels in control. Then we can quickly move on to reducing the negative symptoms that brought them here in the first place. We teach them coping skills to better deal with their response to triggering situations or thoughts. Then the child must process the abuse. This may be a long, or short process depending on each situation. At some point, the child will reach a point of closure in which they have processed the abuse. Their support system will be in place in order to help them navigate going forwards.
Family Strategies Counseling & Mediation is a family-focused therapy office located in Homewood, IL. We specialize in a holistic method of family support. Our services include child-focused play therapy, couples and marital counseling, grief support, and divorce support therapy. Take a look at our staff page, and contact us at (708) 798-5433 or info@Family-Strategy for information to book online or in person.