Resiliency: the Final Stage of Surviving Child Sexual Abuse
The concept of “resiliency” is better understood today than just a decade ago. From 2002 to 2004, when I presented workshops on how to foster resiliency in adolescents for educators, I would have to explain the concept. I would say that to be resilient was to be able to recover from loss or trauma—to get through adverse experiences or circumstances and go forward with confidence and the belief that life will get better.
Today the word is used frequently throughout mainstream media—to describe everything from a town recovering from a horrific natural disaster, to an athlete overcoming an injury, to the attributes of a new skin cream. Really! (“Gold Bond Strength and Resilience Lotion—13 oz. for $9.99″). Resiliency is now seen as a positive quality in communities, in products and in people.
Why do survivors of childhood sexual abuse need to become resilient? A significant body of research identifies the long-term risks and effects of childhood abuse, linking childhood trauma to negative physical and mental health problems. Perhaps the most well-known of these is “The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study” at The ACE Study here, a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA, and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, CA, which demonstrated the damaging effects of childhood adversity throughout survivors’ lives. From 1995-1997, over 17,000 Kaiser patients voluntarily completed an “Adverse Childhood Experience Questionnaire” about their lives as part of their routine health screenings. See more information in PubMed, a resource of the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health or in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on Injury Prevention & Control : Division of Violence Prevention.
An important point regarding resiliency is made in the ACE article, “And it is certainly important to not overlook the ability of children and adults to build from and learn from difficult experiences. As Jack Shonkoff, MD, a pediatrician and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, told NPR, “There are people with high ACE scores who do remarkably well,” adding that ACE scores do not take into account resilience learned as a result of such experiences.”
There are also some beautiful memes with inspirational quotes and images about resiliency at a Yahoo site here
So why do some survivors of childhood abuse struggle with lifelong addictions, or harm themselves, or perpetuate the violence that they themselves experienced, while others grow to be safe and psychologically healthy adults? And why do others become the “rescuers and healers”—as social workers, victim advocates, or counselors?
I believe there are key steps in the lives of victims who become survivors. They include:
Victims first need to gain clear knowledge of the trauma that they experienced. To become a survivor, you have to know what happened to you. “I survived ‘X’.” You can’t become a survivor unless you can acknowledge that you were a victim.
By labeling the abusive behavior as the perpetrator’s responsibility, we begin to take away some of the shame. Learning how to make statements like, “It wasn’t my fault,” “I was just a child,” or “She took advantage of me” are very empowering.
In my opinion full awareness and understanding of sexual abuse and the accompanying emotional abuse usually comes through some form of counseling therapy.
There must be a fundamental psychological separation from the abuser. If victims continue to identify with their familial perpetrators, they may minimize the abuse, make excuses for the abuser and deny the degree of harm. Victims must perceive themselves as different from their abusers—not of the same character. They must make the conscious choice to separate.
Victims need opportunities to connect with healthy, safe adults: advocates, teachers, relatives, coaches, mentors, therapists. Developing a meaningful relationship with even one stable, emotionally available, supportive adult can be highly therapeutic.
A meaningful, positive self-concept grows out of successive acts of responsible behavior. Victims gain independence by learning to be responsible for their own behavior. They need safe opportunities to practice being responsible and adults to supervise them and to help them process their experiences.
To become a survivor, one must demonstrate both awareness and empathy. It is critical to recognize the harm done to victims. Developing empathy—the ability to understand and care about other peoples’ feelings—is crucial to breaking the abuse cycle.
Laughter—the “gift of humor”
To be able to laugh at particular circumstances requires us to step back and to assume a new point of view. Victims are thus distanced a bit from their emotional pain. Seeing the humorous irony in even the bleakest of circumstances can offer new insights—plus emotional and physical release. There were many moments like this in the movie, “The Bucket List”.
The victim’s psychological, philosophical and spiritual interpretations of his or her traumatic experiences are critical, often overlooked parts of the recovery process. What do the abusive experiences mean to the individual survivor? What role do his or her religious beliefs play in recovery? (“Where was God when I was being raped?” “What did I ever do so bad to cause this to happen to me?” “Why me and not my sister?” “Why me?”)
“God weeps for the sexual abuse of children”
Victims of child abuse did not deserve their trauma. They need to be supported in therapy as they make personal sense out of the trauma which they experienced. The resulting belief system and philosophical/spiritual framework is different for each survivor. It can even be vastly different from the therapist’s own belief system.
Survivors help make the world better and safer for others by transforming their personal pain into constructive action. Survivors can live rewarding, purposeful lives of compassion and love for self and others.
We all need to develop resiliency. Everyone faces challenges in life—from changing jobs, relocating to another state, physical problems, the death of friends or family members, betrayals … just because we were abused in childhood doesn’t mean that we get a “free pass”—a “Get Out of _ _ _ _ Ever Again” card.
“The world breaks everyone,
some are strong at the broken places.”
(Child Abuse Prevention, Education and Recovery)
2613 Harrisburg Ave., Henderson, NV 89052
Phone: (702) 982-8156
Web site: www.caperconsulting.com
Julie A. Brand is a powerful advocate for mental wellness through her own firm, CAPER Consulting: Child Abuse, Prevention, Education and Recovery, but during her two-and-a-half-decade long career as a guidance counselor in middle and high schools Julie watched over children with a fierceness she would not begin to understand until her late thirties. She dedicated CAPER Consulting to confronting the subject of mother-daughter sexual abuse and educating other professionals about the complex dynamics of maternal incest and how to intervene effectively on the behalf of victims.
As early as 1988 Julie was nominated by her colleagues for the Reader’s Digest “American Heroes in Education” program because of her child abuse prevention work. She began teaching workshops that were popular at other school districts and spoke at national conferences on the subjects of child abuse, adolescent depression, and bullying related to sexual and gender identity. By 2000 she had written a successful grant to establish a “lending library” with resource materials on child abuse. She also trained her colleagues though in-service courses on how and when to report cases of suspected abuse.
At a more personal level, Julie’s counselling positions allowed her to encourage the children in her charge to focus on resiliency whenever she believed they might be exhibiting stress-related behaviors that were related to their own family dynamics. She believes “children know the difference between something done accidentally and something done ‘on purpose’” even though they may not be able to articulate it until they are older.
Now semi-retired, Julie continues her advocacy of children’s mental wellness by sharing her own experience as a survivor of emotional child abuse and mother-daughter sexual abuse. Julie reports that the latter topic is “under-recognized, under-researched and under-reported” in her 2007 book, A Mother’s Touch: Surviving Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse (Trafford Publishing). She explains that it was only after her mother’s death that she began to understand how her own childhood may have informed her career choice and how it helped her to recognize some of the more subtle signs of abuse in others.
In 2005, Julie began offering private workshops and full-day training courses nationally on the topics of “The Best Kept Secret: Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse”, “Resiliency 101: From Victim to Survivor” (since 2009), and “A Close-up Look at Female Offenders in Positions of Trust” (since 2009). Last year she launched a new workshop, “Providing Therapeutic Support for Victims of Female Perpetrators”.
Julie earned a BA (English) at the University of Oregon, Eugene, an MS (Counseling and Guidance) from North Dakota State University, Fargo, and has done additional postgraduate work in her field.