Child abuse counseling is a specialized field of counseling that focuses on treating children who may have been injured or traumatized by a trusted loved one. The children that Amy Southerland, Liz Goldy and Karen Chapman, clinical social workers for Family & Children’s Place, see may be victims of abuse themselves, or they may have witnessed someone they care about being abused – a parent or sibling.
As a career, child abuse counseling is a difficult job – daily, they witness the scars, seen and unseen, on children. Their work, intensely personal, is all to help a child who has suffered abuse – physical, emotional or psychological, neglect or sexual – understand and process the abuse, and then begin recovery and eventually, healing.
Southerland, Goldy and Chapman, like all clinical professionals at Family & Children’s Place, are committed to creating a safe place for the children to talk and to heal, and to the long-term relationship required for real recovery. Since child abuse affects entire families they work with others in the family, too, non-offending parents, siblings, etc., who need to process the pain as well.
Today, we kick off a series of seven published conversations with Southerland, Goldy and Chapman about their work, the process, the challenges, the impact and the rewards.
QUESTION: HOW DO YOU BEGIN TO HELP A CHILD WHO MAY HAVE BEEN INJURED OR IMPACTED BY ABUSE?
Amy Southerland – Before anything else, you need to establish a therapeutic relationship, to start to build trust. You listen, validate what they say and you hear. You can’t just jump in with, “tell me what happened.” We help kids talk about bad things that happened to them, so we have to build a relationship, create a comfort space for them.
Karen Chapman – When we see clients for the first time, most of them think they are crazy, that they’ve done a bad thing, something that has ripped their family apart. They have had to deal with police, with Child Protective Services and others, so they often think they have been bad or are crazy. We try to help them understand, to see they aren’t bad and haven’t done a bad thing, and that they aren’t crazy, that there are others just like them going through similar issues. We provide outside materials – books, games, worksheets – to help them understand it’s OK to be hurting, that they didn’t do anything wrong, that someone did something bad to them. We get them thinking about healing, get them to talk about the hurt so they can begin to trust.
We provide a safe space where they don’t have to see the pain in their parents’ eyes. The parents do the best they can, but they feel and hurt for their child and their child sees that, so they don’t want to do anything that will hurt them more. We give them permission and a safe place to focus only on themselves, not their parents or others.
Liz Goldy – We help them understand that, “you’re strong enough to tell, and I’m strong enough to hear.” We use psycho-education and other tools to help them see and actually believe they aren’t the only ones going through something like this. For me, it’s a light bulb moment – them realizing “there’s nothing wrong with me.”
Karen Chapman – This is really important, because truth is, most kids don’t tell. There’s so much grief from their parents, others in the family, and it causes so much pain and strife … they don’t tell, letting it fester and harm them even more.
Liz Goldy – We spend a lot of time helping them see that whatever happened wasn’t their fault … we help them grasp that. We spend a lot of time undoing the message, undoing the damage that others have inflicted.