Child Abuse Counselor

Explore the Child Abuse Counseling career...

child abuse counselor

Child abuse is a topic that many people hesitate to think about.

Why wouldn't they? Most people's memories of childhood harken back to a simpler period where many adult worries and concerns were far from their thoughts. For these people, thinking about the children who do not experience these largely carefree times is tragic and horrifying, calling to mind the darker aspects of humanity.

However, simply ignoring child abuse doesn't make it go away, and actually exasperates the problem, preventing many from obtaining the help they need. In 2011, there were 681,000 cases of child abuse in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment and neglect, and physical abuses derail the normal development of children, impacting them for the remainder of their lives. Child abuse counselors work with victims of abuse to process the emotional and physical damages they've incurred, providing them with the tools they need to heal and persevere.

Identifying the signs of child abuse

When a child witnesses or is involved in a traumatic event, it can severely disrupt their self-identity, their concept of trust, and change how they behave. The level of impact that a form of abuse has on a child varies depending on the frequency, type, and duration.

To properly treat victims, child abuse counselors must become aware of some of the signs and indications of abuse. Many times, children are hesitant to reveal their abuse due to stigmatization and shame, requiring child abuse counselors to assemble pieces of a figurative puzzle.

In "Treatment of Child Victims of Abuse and Neglect," published by The Children's Law Center, authors Julie Lipovsky and others describe some of these signs, providing insight on how children process abuse.

Breakdown of Child Abuse

Reported child abuse cases in the United States have dropped steadily over the years, but still represent a dark statistic for the country. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services analyzed the over 681,000 cases of abuse in 2011, revealing the following information:

  • 78% of victims suffered neglect
  • 18% of victims suffered physical abuse
  • 9.1% of victims suffered sexual abuse
  • Number of abuse-related fatalities: 1,570

Source: Department of Health and Human Services

Sexual Abuse

Lipovsky notes that the effects of sexual abuse vary from child to child, relying on their relationship to the offender, the degree of family support, and the specific nature of the abuse. Sexually abused children often feel a sense of betrayal and powerlessness, damaging their ability to trust in others.

Other short and long-term problems associated with sexual abuse include:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Inappropriate or dangerous sexual behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Social withdrawal or isolation

About half of sexually abused children develop some post-traumatic stress symptoms, making it the most telling sign of potential abuse. When meeting with children, counselors should discuss experiences with them, determining whether they are avoiding or reliving memories of the abuse. (See also Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Physical Abuse

The line between discipline and physical abuse is sometimes blurry in many cultures. Parents who cannot control their anger are more at risk to abuse their children, escalating physical punishments like spankings to extremes.

According to Lipovsky, physically abused children are less likely to develop attachments to their parents, and associate family interactions with fear. They are more likely to grow up with anger issues of their own, possibly physically abusing their future children.

Other possible outcomes and disorders associated with physical abuse include:

  • ADHD
  • Depression
  • Self-injurious behavior
  • Violent/Criminal behavior
  • Conduct disorder
  • Anxiety

When assessing victims for possible physical abuses, counselors usually focus on the victim's interactions with other children. Children who resolve their problems with violence learn those behaviors from adults, requiring the counselor to examine where the aggression stems from.

Emotional and Physical Neglect

Neglect is the most common form of child abuse, encompassing over 78% of reported cases. When parents fail to provide food, shelter, medical care, emotional support, and adequate supervision to children, they develop inappropriate strategies to satisfy those needs.

Parents who neglect children set them on a path toward delinquency and, in the most dire circumstances, deny them the resources needed to live. Other issues neglected children face include:

  • Poor intellectual and academic functioning
  • Aggression
  • Poor interpersonal relationships
  • Malnutrition

Identifying these forms and signs of abuse is the first step in providing treatment to young victims. Counselors meeting with caregivers and children offer a non-threatening environment for victims to reveal their abuses, allowing them to take the initial steps toward treatment and recovery.

Helping victims of abuse and their caregivers

Working with children presents a different set of challenges to counselors than adults. Children might not yet have developed the communication skills needed to describe the emotions they are feeling, and additionally might not fully trust the counselor.

Identifying with the abuser

Children often imitate their parents, for better or for worse. Unfortunately for children of abusive parents, this means emulating many of the same negative actions they've experienced.

According to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, counselors must provide young victims with a new perspective on abusive behavior, separating the behavior from the person they are attached to. Some ways they accomplish this include:

  • Help the victim to identify both negative and positive memories of the abusive parent.
  • Focus on the abusive behavior rather than abuser.
  • Connect the child with more appropriate adult role models in the community.
  • Help the child's new caregivers address the roles of boundaries and discipline in the family.
  • Educate caregivers about warning signs that indicate the child is having trouble with powerlessness, anger, or controlling behavior.

Source: Administration for Children and Families

According to "Child Physical and Sexual Abuse: Guidelines for Treatment," published by the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, play therapy is one of the most effective mechanisms for allowing young victims to describe their abuses.

Play provides a natural stage for children to express themselves. Counselors offer them props and toys that allow them to dramatize trauma and abuse by symbolically setting up fantasy worlds. Their stories emerge as they set up parallel worlds to their own, allowing the counselor to observe and hypothesize, and begin to piece together an appropriate treatment plan.

Because many children are assigned caregivers when abuse is discovered, counselors must also educate them about the former abuse and plans for treatment. The counselor becomes a teacher as well as therapist, advising the child and his or her caregivers about the course of recovery, challenging both at each major developmental stage - from starting school, to the teen years, dating, self-sufficiency, and parenting.

Children who witness or experience abuse often have difficulty forming attachments with adults, stemming from their issues with trust or betrayal. The ability to form attachments is a major milestone in childhood, one that counselors must repair during therapy.

Working with both children and caregivers, counselors sometimes introduce attachment-trauma therapy. This form of therapy holds that children must feel safety in an attachment relationship to adequately cope with traumatizing experiences.

Counselors work with caregivers to recognize a child's symptoms of avoidance in the relationship, pushing for greater communication and positive interactions. Sometimes this means facilitating play between them, giving the caregiver insight into the traumatic experience and bringing them both closer together.

Becoming a child abuse counselor

Child abuse counselors must gain a strong background in psychology, as well as passion for working with victims of abuse. All children deserve those carefree memories associated with youth, requiring child abuse counselors to provide effective intervention strategies and coping techniques to this troubled group.

If you want to positively change the lives of abused children and youth, request information from schools offering degrees in psychology.

Generational risks of child abuse?

While child abuse negatively affects the physical and emotional wellbeing of a person for years, new research suggests that these impacts can extend to the children of the abused as well.

Researchers at the Harvard Public School of Health have recently found that women who experience moderate levels of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse are 60% more likely to have a child with autism.

Lead investigator Andrea Roberts hypothesizes that abused women may have heightened responses to stress that negatively affect the developing brain of a fetus. Additionally, the parents of the abused child might themselves be mentally ill, raising the risk of mental disabilities for proceeding generations.

To be clear, most of the abused women did not have children with autism -- the risk was only greater. The overall risk factor for autism remains low -- but higher in the survivors. Roberts stresses this point, hoping to prevent survivors of child abuse from becoming anxious about a possible high risk of autistic children.

While Roberts's study falls short of implicitly calling the association a "cause-and-effect" link, it offers more information for researchers still searching for answers on the causes of autism.

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