Archive for Child Sexual Abuse

How to Help a Friend Who Experienced Sexual Abuse in Childhood

sad-woman-crying-next-to-her-therapist_1098-1924Have you ever found yourself listening to a friend’s disclosure that she was sexually abused as a child? How did you handle it? What’s the best way to receive such news?

Here are some of my ideas, based on my thirty years as a trauma therapist. During that time, I helped women who had been sexually abused in childhood.

Statistics Reveal that Child Sexual Abuse is an Endemic in Our Society

It’s likely anyone reading this article will at some point find herself listening to a friend’s disclosure of child sexual abuse. Statistically, this crime against children is all too common.

The Centers for Disease Control’s 2012 research into child sexual abuse in the USA found that one in six boys and one in four girls reported being sexually abused before the age of 18.

What I Learned Listening to and Supporting Victims of Childhood Trauma

For thirty years, I had a front row seat as we gradually became aware that child sexual abuse was endemic in our society. For the first time, people were remembering and telling their stories. We were becoming aware that our children were being traumatized in their parents’ bedrooms and in church basements. They were abused in music lessons and in gymnasiums by the very adults they looked to for caring and protection.

Nobody Wants to Have Been Sexually Abused

I know the pain of these adult victims as they remember the terrors of their seemingly normal childhoods. No one wants to have been abused. The shame at having been betrayed is immense. They’re embarrassed and bewildered. How could this have happened to them, they wonder?

When your friend confides in you about her childhood trauma, she may have spent agonizing months or years dealing with her own disbelief. She may have wished that what she was remembering was a false memory. She now faces a host of awful realizations.

One of the worst realizations has to do with betrayal. Knowing that a trusted adult exploited her innocence and trust is incredibly painful. The closer the relationship, the worse the trauma.

Survivors Are Good at Looking Good

No one can blame you if you think your friend is too high functioning and too attractive to have been a victim. After all, you say, she has a great life. She’s successful and she’s always well dressed.

Don’t be fooled by what you see on the outside. In abuse survivors, the inside is often very different from external appearances.

Remembering and Forgetting

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse have had a terrible secret to keep. Most often they were threatened with death by their perpetrator if they told.  Sometimes they were warned that a family member or a beloved pet would suffer if the child told anyone about the abuse.

Under these terrifying circumstances, the normal child’s brain is capable of wiping out whatever memories are inescapable and intolerable. This is how our human race survived wars, famines and other dangers. We couldn’t have survived if we’d crumpled and given up.

Conscious memory of the abuse is wiped out so that the victim can survive. On the other hand, not all victims dissociate the memories. Some young brains, for whatever reason, don’t wipe out what is too terrible to remember.

Here’s a guide for what to say and what not to say.

What Not to Say

  • Are you sure?! (Eyebrows and voice both go up at the end of the question)
  • You’re just remembering now? How could you forget such a terrible thing?
  • Tell me all about it
  • How can you say that! Your father / uncle / grandfather / teacher would never do such a thing

Positive Ways to Respond

  • I’m so sorry. This must be very difficult for you
  • A hug
  • If you want to tell me about it sometime, I’m open to that (if you really are able to hear)
  • Keep calling her on a regular basis. You don’t need to talk about the abuse
  • Just make yourself available. Realize she may be fearful you’ll now distance yourself. Telling is risky
  • Stay in touch

Based on your own experience, what would you advise other women to do when a friend discloses child sexual abuse? What feelings and emotions did you experience listening to your friend? Would you react differently if you could listen another time? Did you remain friends after the disclosure?

Nobody Believed Her

sad-young-woman-and-a-rain-drops_426-19324539Recently I heard from a trauma survivor whose story I included in my 2010 memoir, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist. Shelagh Stephen was fourteen years old when she told helping professionals about ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of her father. This was a time when the textbook for psychiatry students assured them they’d be unlikely to encounter child sexual abuse. It was considered extremely rare: nothing that would happen in our communities.

Shelagh tells how she was further traumatized by being trapped in a mental health system where she could not get help. Worse, she endured further harm under the care of those whose job it was to help her. The psychiatrist, the social worker and others charged with treating troubled children, regarded her with scorn and blamed her for making up nasty tales about her respectable father.

In light of today’s statistics, it’s clear that Shelagh was not alone in being shunned and reviled for disclosing her terrible secret. How many children risked going for help, only to be told they were lying? The numbers must be staggering. Punishment for telling no doubt added to the silencing of other children who were being abused by adults in charge of their safety.

You can read the letter Shelagh sent to me. Do you know of similar stories? What was your experience? Clearly, Shelagh is not alone.

Dear Ms. Armstrong,

In your book Confessions of a Trauma Therapist you write about Dr. Angus Hood, supervisor at the Hincks Treatment Centre in Toronto. On pp. 89 you relate that “…fourteen-year-old Shirley Turcotte…was a suicidal teenager who revealed to…(her therapist Harvey) the sexual horrors of her childhood. Fortunately both Harvey and his supervisor, Dr. Angus Hood, were open to believing the unthinkable. Before long Harvey was treating a handful of youngsters who had been sexually abused in their homes.”

This was the same Dr. Angus Hood who was in charge of the Hincks Treatment Centre when my therapist, Dr. Jon Plapp, assured my parents that I had imagined the precisely documented sexual horrors of my own childhood. Dr. Plapp refused to believe a word I said, dismissed my physical pain, did not respect my testimony, and filtered everything through his prejudiced assumption that a father like mine would not sexually abuse his daughter through formative years, ruining her life. Or perhaps he had truly malicious intent. After all, I had informed him in no uncertain terms of the multiple felonies my father committed against me, yet that evidence was not in his files.

My parents’ advisor, a social worker named D. Jaffey, told my parents sympathetically that I would occasionally act out. This sounds like a description of slaves on southern plantations who just ‘went crazy’ every once in a while, then succumbed to suppression and settled down. It was assumed that that this childish behaviour should be treated with zero tolerance by my mature, self controlled and responsible parents.

My name was Shelagh Watson and I was admitted to Hincks when I was 15, in 1970. I am now 57 and guess what? I still say what I said then, that I was habitually and systematically abused by my father for years. What a life I had. A life that was made worse by the abject failure of every person who knew about my father’s crimes and allowed them to continue. Dr. Hood was told that I wanted lie detector tests. Dr. Plapp went out of his way to persuade Dr. C.K. McKnight of the Clarke Institute that in my case they shouldn’t be given, and consequently Dr. McKnight informed my parents that they didn’t yield correct results. But the 60 million dollar question (guessed it yet?) is: Why, then, did the Clarke Institute have them?

I was a gutsy young person. I called a policeman in the middle of all this. But he didn’t believe me when he found out that I was in treatment. And why was I in treatment? Maybe – radical thought – just PTSD from being abused. No, make that TSD, since it was still going on. Dr. Hood, Dr. Plapp and Dr. McKnight were in a position to support me, and they didn’t. 


Shelagh Stephen


Please post your comments below.

My Thoughts on Jian Ghomeshi and the Women Who Fell For Him


Jian Ghomeshi’s trial indicates the need for a separate court to hear the testimony of women who are sexually assaulted by the men they date. Ordinary courts, jurors and judges lack the training to understand these women’s seemingly irrational and dishonest testimony.

A fair trial would require knowledge of the lasting effects of trauma on the human brain, just as The Family Court understands child development and decides “in the best interests of the child.:

I don’t know any of these women personally but in my years as a psychotherapist, I treated many women who were sexually abused by the men they chose. These women had all been sexually abused as children. (Conservative statistics say one in four North American females is sexually abused before the age of 18.) This secret epidemic is tied to the under reporting of sexual abuse. Only 3% of females who are sexually assaulted actually lay charges. The trauma to young brains resulting from child sexual abuse leaves the victims vulnerable to predatory men. The resulting shame and dissociation of traumatic memories is tied to under-reporting of sexual abuse and the inability of traumatized adult women to respond rationally to partner abuse.

The witnesses in the Ghomeshi trial have probably made it more difficult for women wanting to press charges for sexual assault in the future. The police, the women’s lawyer and the Crown all told the women to avoid talking with the press and with each other. Their refusal to comply and the resulting circus of contradictory stories further damaged their case – as well as the hope of women receiving a suitable hearing in the future.

If women are to be given a fair hearing, our courts need to realize the following:

  • children blame themselves for inappropriate touching and sexual behavior on the part of trusted adults. This continues into adulthood. Adult victims of abuse try to normalize an abusive relationship by convincing themselves they love the abuser.
  • Children are helpless to deal with the sexual demands of adults: they attempt to please and placate the assailant in the hope of changing his behavior and surviving the assault. Adult women, crazy as it may seem, attempt to turn the attack into a romance. They learn to dissociate, to remove themselves from the scene, as it were, and hence have “faulty memories” of a myriad of details. This too continues into adulthood.
  • Sexual predators instinctively recognize and seek out vulnerable women who were traumatized as children.

Until we have a court system that is competent to hear cases of sexually assaulted women, sexual assailants will enjoy the protection of our legal system’s innocent until proven guilty standard. Of course, it is essential to our legal system that the accused are given a fair trial. This leaves us needing a court system that can somehow protect the accused and also recognize the psychological needs of the vulnerable.

How People Like Linda Stewardson Can Change a Whole Community


On one of my regular walks with Sammy the poodle along the Kingston lakefront, I came across the plaque pictured above. It stopped me in my tracks. A flood of sadness, then excitement rushed through me. Sadness from being reminded of our nation’s denial of the crimes perpetrated on our young who cannot defend themselves. Excitement because here, marking a recently planted young tree, was a plaque reminding us not of a loved one’s death, but of our children who carry shame and grief in their hearts because of child sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Child abuse is our nation’s best-kept secret. My profound thanks go to whoever chose this way of reminding us of the fate of our children.

Every time someone finds a new way of breaking into our society’s denial of child abuse, I cheer. How else can we protect our children? If our collective head is in the sand, their cries go unheard. We have to educate ourselves about child abuse if we’re going to help. Remember, as Judith Herman tells us: we are either on the side of the victim or the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that you mind your own business, turn the other way. The victim, on the other hand, needs your active involvement. You need to get involved in something that’s not very pretty.

Another recent breakthrough was Linda Stewardson’s recent publication of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die. Linda’s book launch and support from her Thunder Bay community is outstanding. Her church provided a venue for further discussion.

Imagine how many citizens in that community and in the communities where Linda speaks about her experiences are now educated about child abuse. What a huge difference that must make in that community. Nobody there can claim to be unaware of the intolerable suffering of some children. Her story will change that whole community.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die


The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is Linda Stewardson’s story of the unimaginable horror she suffered as a child. Her mother chose alcoholic men, the worst of whom stabbed Linda in the chest multiple times and left her for dead in a garbage bag on a remote beach. Fortunately she was found and taken to hospital. Strangely, once in the hospital, nobody questioned how she’d ended up with six knife wounds in her chest, inside a green plastic garbage bag. Instead the adults around, including the doctor and the nurses, asked her asked her why she’d tried to kill herself! Indeed, until she met Dr. Harvey Armstrong, none of the professionals she worked with asked her about child sexual abuse.

As a teenager, Linda lived on the streets, rather than face physical, emotional and sexual abuse at home. This is when she met my husband, Dr. Harvey Armstrong, psychiatrist at Youthdale Treatment Centre in Toronto. Harvey recognized the goodness and the strength in this young person. If only she had stability and safety in her life, he thought, she’d have a chance at living a decent life. This was the start of taking Linda into our own home and fostering her for periods of time.

Not only did Linda recover from trauma and addiction, she went on to marry a good man and, with her husband, adopted two little boys. In her own community, she reaches out to troubled youth assuring them that they, too, can seek help and recover. And now, with the success of her book, Linda is educating a wider circle about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, our society’s best-kept secret.

This is a heart-rending story. The book will enthrall you with Linda’s hopeless attempts to save herself in those years when adults were not to be trusted: and your heart will fill with relief and joy as she finally learns to trust and change the course of her life – from dark and scary to light and love.