When a child has been sexually abused, how can they begin to overcome what they've been through? We spoke to Jennifer, who helps children to recover through the NSPCC's Letting the Future In service. As she explains, it all starts with play.
“When children arrive for the first time, they may be anxious. But we help them feel safe. They see the playroom with the art materials, lovely toys and puppets, and their eyes light up. Then it’s natural – they start to play.”
Jennifer uses this time to watch their body language to see how a child is feeling. Gradually, when the child feels safe, they can start to use play to mirror their own experiences.
"Children have an incredible capacity to heal, to be creative, to think of new ideas"
“Children have an incredible capacity to heal, to be creative, to think of new ideas. Through play in a safe place, in the context of a therapeutic relationship with a worker like me, they’re able to tap into that creative part of their brain, and start to recover from the impact of sexual abuse.”
When seven-year-old Ella* first came through the door, she walked with her eyes down like she didn’t want to be seen. “She thought that people could tell that she’d been abused and see all the ‘badness’ inside her.”
Over time, Jennifer and Ella played out a story about a princess who had been tricked by a witch. The witch trapped the princess, and made her eat poisonous food. For Ella, this was a safe way for her to communicate the abuse she’d suffered.
“It provides distance from their real life experience” Jennifer explains. “These stories have a lot of emotional energy for children. By playing, they can get that cathartic release. It frees them up.”
Jennifer helped Ella to create a wise wizard character. The wizard explained to the princess that she was a good person inside, that the witch was wrong to trick her and hurt her. He helped her realise it wasn’t her fault.
"I see how sexual abuse can be so destructive to people, and it doesn’t need to be. I think this is the window of opportunity – if we can get in now, it makes such a big difference."
One day Ella picked up a magic wand in the playroom. Jennifer suggested that when the princess held the wand, the power of the magic came from inside the princess.
“When she held the wand, she realised she was good on the inside, and a very strong person.”
Ella’s stories started to change. Instead of being tricked by the witch, she put a magic spell on her so that if she tried to hurt anyone else she would turn into a frog.
By the end of Jennifer’s time with her, Ella would arrive with a big smile and chat to people in the service centre. She didn’t feel like she had to hide anymore.
“I see how sexual abuse can be so destructive to people, and it doesn’t need to be. I think this is the window of opportunity – if we can get in now, it makes such a big difference.”