Ways to Build Healthy Friendships for Children and Youth Survivors of Sexual Abuse
What are Some Roadblocks to Building Healthy Friendships?
Children and youth survivors of sexual abuse (CSA) may have trouble feeling emotionally and physically safe enough to trust another person after experiencing abuse (Rosenthal, Feiring, & Taska, 2003). What constitutes safety may be perceived differently for every child based on culture and family background. Here are some components of a sense of safety that are common to most people:
- Emotionally: Feeling comfortable with your own thoughts and feeling.
- Physically: Feeling at ease in your own skin and body.
- Socially: Feeling safe to express feelings, thoughts, beliefs and pain.
- Sexually: Feeling confident that someone will not harm your body or force you to see, hear, or do anything without your permission.
- Spiritually: Feeling reassured with other people who hold the same beliefs or feeling secure despite other’s different belief systems.
Positive, healthy friendships are built on trust. We all know that children are trusting and they usually believe what they are told (Blanchard & Hebert, 2014). But the ability to trust is damaged when an abuser violates healthy boundaries, causing confusion in the child’s mind. This fundamental lack of trust affects a person’s whole life, seriously undermining their ability to perform well in a job or have meaningful relationships with friends and loved ones later on in adulthood. (Blanchard & Hebert, 2014).
#3 Feeling Alone and Different
Many children and youth who experienced childhood sexual abuse also feel more lonely, different, disliked and unpopular than those who did not. They were generally more withdrawn, and had diminished social skills, compared to their peers. After children have suffered betrayal, they don’t feel as safe. The ability to trust does not come easy to them, especially because they feel different than others of their peer group. They may use emotional isolation as a coping mechanism to protect themselves, due to the traumatic and distressing event(s) they experienced. Self-protection soon becomes a way of life for the sexual abuse survivor.
How can we support abused children and enable them to build better friendships?
Social-skills instruction can really help a child feel more confident. Group therapy sessions can be conducted by educators and counselors. Parental involvement is important, too, because the parents can reinforce at home what is learned in the group. Social-skills lessons can focus on the following:
- How to identify safe and trustworthy friends
- How to look for friends that understand the give-and-take process (reciprocal sharing and expressed value of each other)
- How to be find a friend who is emotionally supportive and encouraging
How to Identify a Safe and Healthy Friend
Parents, counselors and educators can write a list of character traits of healthy friendships based on relatable books for children and youth or from their own experiences. Traits of healthy friendships may vary depending on individual values and culture.
Parents, educators and counselors can also ask the student to write a list of factors that are important to them in a healthy and trustworthy friend. They could draw a picture or write their top 5 traits. This list can be reviewed later by the child or youth to discern whether their ideas change as they process their thoughts and learn more about healthy friendships.
Friendship Involves Give-and-Take
Parents and group therapy leaders can discuss what a give-and-take friendship looks like. For example, books and instructional videos may be a useful resource, in addition to role-playing as practice in learning how to interact socially in a healthy manner. Role-playing can also be part of ongoing conversations about friendships. For example, group leaders could create and practice out loud a script outlining a healthy conversation between friends, with the input of the participating children, The counselor, parent, or educator can play the role of the safe friend while the child or youth practices their own part. After reading the created script, the parent, educator, or counselor can point out the positive character traits of that friend (e.g., I listened as they talked to me and then I talked, too; they were helpful, they shared a resource).
How to Find a Friend Who is Emotionally Supportive and Encouraging
Children and youth need to identify healthy emotional support traits of a good friend and learn what that looks like and sounds like to them. Abused children need emotional support that leads to quality time with friends who encourage, listen and are interested in them. Parents, educators, and counselors can use children’s books, stories, or role-playing about how emotional support can build their self-esteem. They can also illustrate and discuss what makes a healthy friendship by viewing appropriate videos or shows.
Asking such questions as, “Did you notice how that friend sat by their friend and listened? Or “What did you notice the friend did to support the other person’s feelings?” allows the child or youth to think about the interactions. Video clip examples of poor friendship can also be shown later to discuss unhealthy traits in a friend. Developing positive and healthy friendships is an important part of helping children and youth build connections in their healing process from sexual abuse.
Blanchard-Dallaire, C., & Hebert, M. (2014). Social Relationships in sexually abused children: Self-reports and teachers’ evaluation.
Rosenthal, S., Feiring, C., & Taska, L. (2003) Emotional support and adjustment over a year’s time following sexual abuse discovery, Child Abuse & Neglect, 27, 641-661.