Finding the Child Within Through Helping the Child Without
By Philip Tedeschi, M.S.S.W., LICSW
For several years Philip Tedeschi worked in the Adolescent Sex Offender Program at the Griffith Center, a residential facility in Larkspur, Colorado. In this article, Tedeschi writes about a group he ran with juvenile sex offenders, all of whom were victims of abuse, and two adult males who were survivors of abuse (but were not offenders).
Incidents of the sexual abuse of young males are, like those of all victims, significantly under-reported. When they come to the attention of treatment providers, male sexual abuse victims present many dilemmas and challenges. It appears that both the societal neglect of young male victims and these boys' own denial of the abusiveness of their experiences stem from the sex-role socialization of males in our society.
Boys are taught that they can't be victims, that they should not feel vulnerable or helpless. Thus, the young male who is sexually abused feels like a failure even before embarking on his journey of becoming a man. With this sense of failure come pervasive feelings of shame, stigmatization, and a sense of losing control and personal power. Almost all the young male victims I have worked with attempt to hide this pain and trauma through isolation, withdrawal, aggression, as well as minimization of the impact of the abuse or even total denial that they were abused.
It is beyond the scope of this article to fully discuss the needs that must be addressed in the treatment of young male victims. But I would like to share a powerful and innovative treatment intervention that I have found promotes the recovery process for both young male victims and adult male survivors.
Several years ago I was fortunate to facilitate a survivor group for adolescent male sex offenders all of whom were victims of abuse. Although I've run these groups many times, this particular group was uniquely powerful and transforming. I managed to find two adult male survivors of sexual abuse who agreed to speak with these young men.
The men felt it would help them in their recovery to talk about their abuse experiences. They saw that it was destructive and painful to be isolated with the secrets of their abuse. Both men also said that this process of revealing and sharing was crucial for building a trusting relationship with their child within.
The men served as role models who helped the adolescents understand more of their experiences of abuse. It is vital, for both the treatment and recovery processes, to know that one is not alone and that it is possible to overcome the damaging effects of sexual abuse. Adolescentsgenerally have a difficult time seeing themselves in the future; it is difficult to imagine themselves as men. Their encounter with adult survivors helped them realize that the effects of sexual abuse are far-reaching and, if avoided, do not simply go away with time. This encounter provided them with the impetus and support they need to begin dealing with victimization issues now rather than later.
This model provided participants with the following benefits:
Gaining of insight into the importance of early treatment by hearing the adult survivors describe the impact of their sexual abuse, and the damaging effects of keeping it a secret.
Validation, via role modeling by men who have survived and are recovering from sexual abuse, of normal responses including feelings of fear and shame, sexual identity confusion, and other issues difficult for adolescents to discuss.
Challenging of prevailing gender myths of "real" men as invulnerable, and replacement of these with more realistic images and beliefs about masculinity.
Demonstration of healthy expression of feelings andvalidation of their experiences by someone other than a therapist.
Opportunity to experience a healthy relationship with an adult male.
Reduction of feelings of shame by talking about these feelings.
Through direct contact with adolescents who have been abused, the adult survivor re-experiences aspects of his own childhood and child within.
Transformation of a negative life experience into an opportunity for healing and growth, in others as well as themselves.
Through teaching others about the hazards of isolation and secrecy of abuse, they could promote openness through sharing.
Validation that their personal experiences are important.
As the facilitator of this group, I observed how the adolescents' therapeutic progress was significantly accelerated by the presence of adult male survivors. I believe this joining of two generations may be beneficial to other groups addressing sexual victimization issues.
I want to offer a special thanks to the two courageous men who joined the group, for making this experience possible. Finally, below Fred describes his experience in his own words.
"Tonight was the first time that these adolescent boys would meet and hear adult men who, like themselves, were survivors of childhood sexual abuse. We had agreed to meet with these kids to help them with their abuse issues by sharing our history. My personal agenda was to somehow help them escape the life that I knew was waiting for them if they did not deal with their abuse issues. What I did not expect was their contribution to my own healing.
"It was the eyes which peered from faces masked with indifference and fear that gave them away. They were frightened of what they might hear, or worse yet, feel. As I sat there I debated with myself whether or not to edit my story and I decided that the truth, with all of its ugliness, was the only thing which might break through the denial that filled the room. And so, I proceeded to speak to the fear, shame and isolation which all ofus had tried to protect ourselves from and kept secret. Afterward, several of these kids came up to me and asked me how I could have said some of the things that I did. They could not believe that men could talk about their abuse. Although hearing about our experiences caused some of them to experience attacks of shame, nevertheless these same boys wanted to hear more, and say more.
"The boys gathered around us needed what we needed at theirage. They needed to hear our 'voice'. They needed to hear usbreak the rules- to talk about what happened to us. In the comingweeks as they began sharing more about what had happened to them,we tried to give them the acceptance, understanding and quietstrength that we were denied. I realized that in caring aboutthese kids, I was beginning to care about my 'kid', too. Theywere teaching me that, like them, my adolescent boy was scared, silent and full of shame. The compassion that I felt for thesekids was spilling over into my own life. I began to understandhow difficult it was for my adolescent child to take care ofhimself. Thus began the healing of the unjust anger that I hadvictimized myself with for years by holding my adolescent selfaccountable for what I perceived was his failure to championhimself.
"I strongly believe that survivors, regardless of our age, can help each other. I have wondered what might have happened if the child I was had the opportunity to talk to a man who believed, supported and loved him."