Emotional Support Strategies for Children and Youth Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Why is emotional support a necessary part of the healing process for children and youth who are survivors of sexual abuse?
Emotional support means showing empathy, compassion, and genuine concern for others; this leads to greater emotional well-being. An important aspect of the process is helping children and youth regulate their emotions. Emotional regulation is the process of building and establishing healthy friendships (Hebert, Langevin, & Oussaid, 2018). Having emotional support systems will help them monitor, evaluate, and modify emotional reactions to everyday interactions. Children and youth may display more emotions of sadness, anxiety, or depression due to the traumatic events they experienced (Langevin, Hebert, & Cossette, 2015), and they need to process those feelings with trusted friends and family.
Children and youth survivors also need help in learning to regulate their intense emotions. Some may display anger at past traumatic events with more aggression; they may yell, hit, or harm themselves or others because they don’t know how to express their internal feelings. They need to have support systems so they can learn how to safely express how upset, sad, or grieved they are about what happened to them.
What are emotional regulation competencies?
Emotional regulation competencies refer to the ability of young children and school-age children to recognize, interpret and respond constructively to their own emotions:
1. Appropriate emotional reactions of empathy
Brene Brown defines empathy as making connections with people so they know they are not alone in the struggle. This is a way to connect emotion to what another person is experiencing but it does not require that each person would have experienced the same situation. Trauma can certainly change how a person comprehends their own pain and whether they are able to have compassion for another person’s pain. Empathy can be modeled in kindness, curiosity, and listening to another person’s pain.
2. Appropriate emotional expression
Expressing one’s emotions is not always easy. Emotional expression may not have been learned in the family dynamic. This is a challenge for children and youth survivors of sexual abuse because they will not know how to express their pain outwardly and communicate their feelings about the situation. Family members may not know how to begin expressing emotion due to parents/guardians not having learned this either. Some families discourage emotion. Some parents or guardians may also have learned that any trauma or emotions should be discarded or never talked about again.
What are ways to build healthy emotional expression?
Healthy emotional expression allows children and youth survivors of sexual abuse to express their emotions. For example, a child may say “I feel very sad and upset by what happened.” In a healthy family, parents and guardians affirm the child by stating, “I am sorry that you feel sad and upset.” The conversation may start with that sentence and continue as led by the child or youth.
3. Emotional self-awareness and positive engagement with peers and others (Hebert, Langevin, & Oussaid, 2018).
Emotional self-awareness allows oneself to reflect on their emotions and be able to express themselves positively and authentically when alone or with peers. When someone can emotionally express themselves to another without fear of judgment, they are then able to have a healthy expression of the range of emotions they feel in the moment. This leads to better relationships with their peers. (Kim & Cichetti, 2010). Conversations between students in a small group setting may begin with each child and youth stating how they feel that day; they may play a game to help build connection between children and youth, they may begin by having a small circle where children can share how they feel about a fun topic to begin building trust.
Hebert, M., Langevin, R., & Oussaid, E. (2018) Cumulative childhood trauma, emotional regulation, dissociation, and behavior problems in school-aged sexual abuse victims. Journal of Affective Disorders, 225, 306-312.
Kim, J., & Cichetti, D. (2010). Longitudinal pathways linking child maltreatment, emotional regulation, peer relations, and psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology, 51 (6),706-716. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02202.x
Langevin, R., Hebert, M., & Cossette, L. (2015). Emotional regulation as a mediator of the relationship between sexual abuse and behavior problems in preschoolers. Child Abuse & Neglect, (1