Mental health issues are a risk facing children who have been abused

Children and young people who suffer abuse should get the support they need, when they need it. It is a moral imperative, says June Cousins

June Cousins is a Children's Services Practitioner working with our Letting the Future In (LTFI) service, an intervention for children and young people affected by sexual abuse.


Child abuse and neglect has a profound impact on children and young people and its effects can last a lifetime without appropriate support.

"Living with trauma symptoms is terrifying. Children and young people may think they are going “insane”, feel that they are “abnormal”, “different” or “weird”, lose their sense of control and hope for the future."
June Cousins / Practitioner, Letting the Future In

For young people like Abi, sexual abuse is a significant traumatic event that affects their brain's ability to make sense of their experience emotionally. It can just be too scary and overwhelming for them to deal with.

Instead the trauma takes over and affects their ability to cope with everyday life. This may lead them to experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as:

    • depression
    • clinical anxiety
    • flashbacks
    • intrusive images
    • nightmares
    • being easily upset or angry.

Living with trauma symptoms is terrifying. Children and young people may think they are going "insane", feel that they are "abnormal", "different" or "weird", lose their sense of control and hope for the future.

Although there are common responses to sexual abuse, the way individual children and young people present at the beginning of the therapeutic process is as unique as they are.

Some children may shut down and be completely non-responsive. Others may pretend that everything is OK. They may mistrust you or feel that you know nothing about them, or they may be curious and wonder what you can offer.

My aim, as a practitioner for LTFI, is to empower them to have a voice. To do that, it is necessary to build trust by getting to know them as a person and sharing part of myself with them.

You have to provide consistency and instil confidence that you won't let them down.

Abi's diary

Abi's 14 years old. She's been sexually abused. This is her diary. Over the next 6 months, we'll bring to life the alternate paths her life could take with, and without, the right professional support. Without the right support, Abi becomes 'Child A'.
Read Abi's latest diary entry

Only once I've established a trusting relationship, will they feel comfortable in going on a journey with me, to revisit the traumatic event together in a safe emotional environment.

Our approach at Letting the Future In is very practical. I'll aim to inspire their sense of hope by finding out what they want to achieve and identifying what stops them getting there. It is important to listen to their agenda and come into the child's world.

We also do a lot of work on questions of self-identity. Many young people will ask themselves questions like, "Why has this happened to me?" or "What made me stand out?"

"With our support, the child learns positive coping mechanisms to help them manage their feelings. They are empowered to recognise that they can have a good life, build resilience and become able to regulate their emotions."
June Cousins / Practitioner, Letting the Future In

They will often blame themselves for their abuse - these feelings may have been reinforced by things they have been told by the abuser or other adults. We help them identify the trauma they have experienced, help them understand their experience and place responsibility on the abuser.

At LTFI we employ a variety of strategies to help them, including play or art therapy, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, filial therapy and person-centred therapy.

I use a range of methods that encourage creative play to tap into the emotional part of the brain that has closed down due to the trauma. I also employ creative activities such as painting, writing poetry, and story telling to help the child revisit their traumatic experiences and express them in safe ways.

With our support, the child learns positive coping mechanisms to help them manage their feelings. They are empowered to recognise that they can have a good life, build resilience and become able to regulate their emotions.

Not providing support for young people who have suffered abuse will be costly in the long run – we bear the costs of drug abuse, child sexual exploitation, crime and chronic adult mental health problems as a result.When a referral has been made, a young person needs help and they may be ready to talk and share about their experiences. But if they have been on a waiting list for months, they might already think they have been let down by the time they see a professional who can help them.

When a referral has been made, a young person needs help and they may be ready to talk and share about their experiences. But if they have been on a waiting list for months, they might already think they have been let down by the time they see a professional who can help them.

It sometimes feels like we are policing society, because we are only able to help children with the most high risk behaviour. It shouldn't be like that – children and young people should get the support they need, when they need it. It is a moral imperative.

It's time to demand change

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