A Path to Healing from Child Sexual Abuse

A child's shadowy hands against a dark color glass

Sex is a powerful bonding activity to building a marvelous intimacy or causing lifelong harm to one’s life and soul. Sexual trauma prevents adult survivors from fully embracing and enjoying that sense of oneness with their intimate partners because their trauma has perverted that wonderful experience in their psyche. It prevents them from emotional closeness. Survivors of sexual violence tend to feel responsible for their abuse/attack as they try to make sense of what happened to them. That is partly because domestic and sexual violence tends to be more traumatic than natural disasters since it’s more disruptive to our fundamental sense of trust and attachment.

In his book Mending the Soul, Stephen Tracy says that, in most cases, sexual abuse dismantles survivors’ faith as their shame, guilt, and anger take root. When activated, these negative feelings have the power to hijack all other thoughts and emotions.

Shame resembles a virus that infects the emotional, physiological, rational, and spiritual self, suppressing one's voice and filtering in others’ voices instead.

Shame prompts survivors of child sexual abuse to hide from themselves, others, and their faith.

Healing is a long and difficult but necessary process

Healing from child sexual abuse isn’t just something one decides upon and prays about. It’s quite a messy process, actually, because of the devastating effects of the abuse and the ensuing suffering and shame. Tracy states that rebuilding a relationship with one’s true self and faith requires, in this case, wrestling with the divine, taking an honest approach to God. That means exposing the losses that the abuse and consequent shame and isolation have caused – the Judeo-Christian scriptures witness to the healing effects of righteous lamentation on the believer’s soul. Wrestling with God builds spiritual character and helps survivors reimagine God – in the case of Christians, through Jesus’ character, love, and virtues portrayed in the Gospels.

Healing from sexual trauma also requires an evidence-based approach that generally involves:

  1. Securing physical, relational, and psychological safety – healing can’t begin until one feels safe.

  2. Naming the abuse/attack, telling the story breaks the cycle of secrecy, shame, and guilt.

  3. Finding validation from positive, affirming relationships to help reconnect with the fractured emotional self.

  4. Working with a trauma-trained psychotherapist to process the trauma and reconnect with one’s body and emotional self in a healthy way.

  5. Establishing a new meaning and purpose for one’s sexual self with the help of a therapist and safe, affirming relationships.

As survivors of child sexual trauma find the courage to tell their stories of abuse, they also find the strength to break the cycle of secrecy and obscurity that their feelings of shame and guilt created and sustained. It’s an expression of self-empowerment. But facing the brokenness caused by the abuse also means revisiting the traumatic event and reliving the pain it caused. It’s essential to have the assistance of a trauma-trained therapist at this point to help process the devastating effects of the abuse and attached feelings and emotions and assign a new meaning to it.

Tracy sees this step in the process of healing as an expression of faith and trust in a loving God that invites survivors of this horrible crime to embrace the truth of their abuse instead of keeping running or hiding from it. By making this painful but necessary step, survivors can see the horrible distortions in their psyche created by displaced feelings of shame and guilt and correct them. Survivors then are empowered to stop deadening themselves and numbing their emotions and feelings. They can now:

  • Healthily relate to themselves and other people.

  • Set appropriate boundaries with abusive others.

  • Minimize the risk of experiencing abuse again.

It’s a powerful emotional and spiritual way of healing.

Is forgiveness required to heal from sexual trauma?

Because of their religious beliefs, many people expect survivors of sexual abuse to forgive their abusers for the sake of everybody’s peace – especially when the abuse is intrafamilial. There’s no question about people’s good intentions in this regard, but this kind of pressure doesn’t do any good to the survivor who feels re-victimized when this happens. Survivors of sexual abuse and those who support them must be aware that sometimes in asking for forgiveness, abusers are seeking reconciliation, which could lead to more abuse, especially in intimate relationships.

Survivors of sexual trauma, especially those who suffered the abuse as children, need psychological forgiveness. Tracy defines psychological forgiveness as the desire for and work toward healing and inner peace. Letting go of the negative feelings toward the abuse and even the abuser requires proper counseling and the support of healthy relationships.

It’s always the survivor’s purview to whether, and to what extent, grant grace to their abuser.

A crucial first step

The path to healing from child sexual abuse is a process that needs a crucial first step to begin: reclaiming a sense of safety and addressing the child in one’s self – the child-self left frozen in time because of the abuse and unresolved trauma. Once a survivor feels safe to begin their healing journey, it’s essential to address their child-self, the child who suffered the horrible abuse. To start dismantling the emotional, spiritual, and cognitive distortions that the abuse created in the psyche, survivors need to tell their child-self what they know now about the traumatic experience and emphatically affirm and reaffirm that it wasn’t the child’s fault that the abuse happened. Acknowledging the abuse to one’s child-self is critical since it fosters the process of bringing that child out of the shadows, out of hiding, toward integration, which is the cornerstone of healing. It’s about vindicating the neglected and lost-in-time child.

One way to connect with the child-self is through writing. That’s neither an easy thing to do since survivors of child sexual abuse have repressed or numbed their emotions for most of their lives. Try journaling for a while then, and when ready, write to your child-self.

Here is a sample letter to a child-self that you may find useful.

For more information call:

The Child Abuse Hotline (LA County DCFS) 1-800-540-4000

Rape Hotline – RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) 1-800-656-4673