Child abuse campaigns often highlight the importance of arresting perpetrators or detecting the signs of abuse. Research into effective treatments for survivors is scarce. Using data from the United Kingdom’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty (NSPCC) to Children, a new study by researchers at the University of Bristol and Durham University is working to change. Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of “Letting the Future In” (LFI), a program designed by the NSPCC for social workers working with childhood sexual abuse survivors.
Statistics on the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse vary, and reliable numbers can be hard to find given the stigma associated with abuse. Children are often reluctant to disclose their abuse and may fear retaliation from their abusers, even in adulthood. The authors of the LFI study say 1 in 20 UK children have been sexually abused. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center points to research in the United States estimating 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused before their 18th birthdays.
Letting the Future In: Helping Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors
The team of researchers worked with 242 children ages 6-16 who had been sexually abused. Most experienced physical contact, rather than inappropriate sexual commentary or other forms of non-physical abuse. The children were almost twice as likely to have been abused by family members as non-family members. Forty percent of perpetrators known to the victim were younger than age 18.
Children on the waitlist saw no significant improvements in symptoms. Among children younger than 8 who participated in the LFI program, symptoms also did not improve within six months, but children who stayed in the program for a year saw a decrease in symptoms of trauma.
Children older than age 8 had more clinically significant improvements. At the six month mark:
- Only 46% of children older than age 8 had severe emotional difficulties, compared to 73% at the beginning of the study.
- The number of children experiencing severe symptoms of trauma dropped from 68% to 51%.
- Social workers administering the program reported confidence in their role and felt the program added value to their work with children.
- Participants reported greater confidence, reduced guilt and self-blame, improved mood, better sleep patterns, and a keener understanding of appropriate sexual boundaries.
Insights for Treating Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors
LFI is just one among many programs that can treat sexual abuse. Therapists may use a combination of structured programs and unstructured activities in their work with children. Because the LFI program proved effective, those who work with children may want to draw upon some of its principles. Those include:
- Using creative therapies such as drawing, painting, and telling stories to help children talk about their abuse.
- Involving the child’s caregiver in individual sessions with the therapist as well as joint sessions with the child.
- Helping children feel safe as they talk about and work through their abuse.
- Evaluation of the Letting the Future In service. (2016, February 22). Retrieved from https://www.nspcc.org.uk/services-and-resources/research-and-resources/2016/letting-the-future-in-evaluation/
- Understanding child sexual abuse definitions and rates [PDF]. (2012, August). Enola: National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
- Letting the Future In: A Therapeutic Intervention for Children Affected by Sexual Abuse and their Carers [PDF]. (2016, February). National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty.
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