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Scarred and scared

Mariam Naeem Khan talks to Dr Rubina Feroz, a clinical psychologist, regarding the psychological impact of child sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse is slowly and steadily gaining attention as parents, guardians and teachers are now becoming aware of the malady, and are taking steps to prevent their children and students from becoming victims.

Dr Rubina Feroz, a clinical psychologist, sheds light on the effects of child sexual abuse and how to help a child who has been through such a tragic experience.

She says, “Children who have been victims of sexual abuse typically suffer from a wide range of psychological, physical, mental and behavioural problems such as fear, vulnerability, mistrust, anxiety and in some cases seclusion. If not resolved in time, the abuse can have permanent long-term effects which usually include depression, abnormal sexual behaviours or self-destructive behaviours (during teenage years) like using drugs, alcohol and having recurring suicidal thoughts. However, a sudden loss of interest in academics and school activities, eating disorders and bed wetting are some of the prominent effects of sexual abuse which can be noticed within a year or two from when the abuse started.”

Feroz further elucidates that sexually abused children experience numerous different feelings while and after going through such an incident. She explains, “Abused children are often afraid to share what’s happening with them out of fear of being rejected by their families and friends. They think their families will hold them responsible, as children can’t really differentiate when ‘they did something wrong’ or ‘something wrong happened to them’. They feel guilty and ashamed that they have done something bad. Abusers often tell them they will either harm them or their parents. At times, children are even threatened with physical violence or the death of a pet so as not to divulge the secret which leaves them depressed and isolated. It influences their social and academic activities and inculcates a depressed sate of mind which grows stronger if the abuse isn’t dealt with appropriately.”

Sexually abused children need a lot of care, affection and support from the family and loved ones to overcome the traumas of the violence. When asked how can these children be emotionally helped and brought into the comfort zone again, Feroz replies, “First and foremost is assuring the child that the abuser will not reach him/her again nor will the abuser cause any harm to anyone. The fear factor needs to be eliminated and the child needs to feel protected. It is pertinent that the victim’s family especially parents establish an open and trusting relationship with him/her.

“The environment at home needs to be secure, free of taunts and belittling remarks, and children should be able to communicate with the parents candidly. Parents should listen to their children intently as the victims often endeavour to indirectly give hints about the abuse.

The duration, frequency and the nature of abuse, the relationship of the abuser with the child and how quickly does the child reports the abuse also determines the recovery.”

An important aspect of recovery involves children undergoing counselling sessions and workshops where psychologists help them regain their confidence and support them in eroding the troublesome mental wounds of the abuse.

When asked about these sessions, Feroz asserts, “I would recommend parents to bring their children to psychotherapy sittings regularly as during these we tend to assist the child come out of his/her shell by ensuring that we aren’t judging or evaluating them. Once, he/she begins trusting us, they break the silence. When we have the details, the healing process starts, where we tell the child it wasn’t his/her fault and start bolstering his/her confidence. It doesn’t happen in one or two sittings, but with regular sessions we can eventually see positive results.”