Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Traumatic Symptoms in Sexually Abused Children: Implications for School Counselors

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Traumatic Symptoms in Sexually Abused Children: Implications for School Counselors

Article excerpt

School counselors have a duty to formulate strategies that aid in the detection and prevention of child sexual abuse (American School Counselor Association, 2003). School counselors are charged with helping sexually abused children by recognizing sexual abuse indicators based on a child's symptomotology and/or behavior, and understanding how this trauma may affect children in the school setting. Mandated reporting issues, talking with children and adolescents about sexual abuse suspicions, and understanding trauma symptoms and their contribution to the difficulties that sexually abused children have in school are highlighted. In addition, how school counselors can collaborate with clinicians treating sexually abused children through role-appropriate advocacy, intervention, and aftercare strategies is described.


School counselors will be better prepared to recognize and identify cognitive, affective, and behavioral patterns of sexually abused children by understanding the outcomes of trauma and how symptoms manifest in sexually abused children, especially in the school environment. Traumatic events give rise to various symptoms and consequences that differ among affected children (Downs, 1993; Saywitz, Mannarino, Berliner, & Cohen, 2000; Webster, 2001). Children who experience the trauma of sexual abuse are no exception, as they exhibit a highly heterogeneous symptomotology (Valle & Silovsky, 2002). Trauma produces profound and prolonged changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory that "may sever these normally integrated functions from one another" (Herman, 1997, p. 34). These changes would necessarily affect school functioning.

Research has shown that traumatic symptoms that arise from sexual abuse may be exacerbated by the number of perpetrators; the duration, frequency, and severity of abuse; the age of the victim and of the perpetrator at onset; and the victim's feelings of responsibility, powerlessness, betrayal, or stigma at the time of the abuse (Briere, 1992a). By understanding the ramifications of sexual abuse, school counselors will be able to adjust their comprehensive guidance and counseling programs to include more appropriate intervention, aftercare, and advocacy strategies on behalf of this vulnerable population of children and adolescents.


The American School Counselor Association's (ASCA, 2003) position statement regarding the school counselor's role in child abuse and neglect prevention reflects ASCA's assertion that school counselors are legally, ethically, and morally responsible for reporting suspected cases of child abuse to the proper authorities. Furthermore, ASCA suggested that counselors should demonstrate an understanding of child abuse problems, recognize and detect indicators of abuse, and provide strategies for preventing and combating the cycle of child abuse. Clearly, school counselors may be integrally involved in prevention and intervention efforts to support sexually abused children and adolescents in the school setting.

Programs aimed at preventing child abuse may target different levels of prevention (i.e., primary, secondary, or tertiary) and different populations of people in positions to help sexually abused children (e.g., school personnel, students, parents/guardians, and community members). Primary prevention efforts are those aimed at a broader audience that address underlying societal causes of maltreatment (Geeraert, Van den Noortgate, Grietens, & Onghena, 2004). They may include advocating for a ban on corporal punishment in schools (ASCA, 2003; Geeraert et al.). Secondary prevention efforts are those aimed at specific groups at risk for maltreatment, such as students, that attempt to decrease the risk factors (Geeraert et al.). They may include providing classroom guidance lessons to all students about personal safety and sexual abuse prevention (Hollander, 1992; Schmidt, 2004); psychoeducational presentations to parents explaining how to talk in developmentally appropriate ways to children about protecting their bodies or how to recognize the signs of potential perpetrators in the community (Finkelhor, Asdigian, & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1995; Stop It Now! …

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