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Seeing the Unseen, Listening to the Unheard

Dumbledore to Harry Potter, "A child's voice, however honest and true, is meaningless to those who've forgotten to listen." As child mental health professionals these words resonate deeply, urging us to evaluate how we hear the voices of children, particularly those who have been silenced by sexual abuse and trauma.

As mental health professionals, we pride ourselves on being professional listeners. We've honed our counseling skills, learned to appreciate spoken and unspoken communication, and mastered the art of understanding patterns and themes in our client’s narratives. Yet, despite our extensive education and training, we often find ourselves at a loss when it comes to connecting therapeutically to sexually traumatized children and helping them heal. 

Play Therapy

And then we discover play therapy—the key to hearing the voices of children who have been silenced through the unspeakable sexual trauma. Through play, the natural and universal communication of children; metaphors, symbols, and behaviors, children communicate in ways that words alone cannot capture nor is possible developmentally. It's through this medium that we learn to listen to their voices, hear their stories, see and to understand their pain, accompanying them on their journey to healing and wholeness.

But listening to these voices isn't easy especially when the agendas of adult-centric therapy practices get in our way. It requires us to delve into the dark realities and prevalence of childhood sexual trauma, and to confront our own fears, discomfort and oftentimes vulnerable child parts. It's through this that we find growth and healing, both for ourselves and for the children we aim to help.

Because communication with children relies less on speaking, and more on other forms (play, behavior, verbalizations, facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language and the intersectionality of all forms of communication), we need to be able to adapt our listening skills to these cues in order to truly hear the voices of children who have been sexually traumatized. When successful, we thus are able to accommodate their needs, and facilitate growth and healing.

Clinical Questions for Unsilencing

Here are some complex questions to help guide your play therapy case conceptualization process:

  1. What does the child's behavior reveal about trust and betrayal in the therapeutic relationship?

  2. Are there themes of trickery emerging in their play? What characters are involved? What does this tell you about the child’s lived experience and how they are navigating their world?

  3. What emotions is the child trying to evoke in us through their interactions? What are you feeling and experiencing? Are there any sensations in your body? What does this tell you about what the child is communicating and about the child’s story?

  4. Do any aspects of their play or behavior feel unsettling or "creepy"? If it feels creepy, it is creepy!

  5. Are you willing to look through the lens of childhood sexual trauma: What do you know about how children are harmed sexually that could help make sense of this play? Always follow up with, what else besides sexual trauma could this child be communicating through this play? 

Let’s be honest here, most of us don’t know much about childhood sexual offenders because we never plan on working with them clinically. Our work focuses on the victims and survivors, not the offenders. There is someone who  does know about them, Dr. Graham Hill, Criminologist. Together with Graham, we are working on trainings that help you see the full picture of child sexual abuse: how to understand the victim, and the perpetrator. 

Graham is an expert in relation to the behavior of adults who sexually abuse children and male perpetrators of non-familial child abduction. Dr. Hill is a former senior detective and was the founder and first Head of Behavioral Analysis for the UK Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre (CEOP). Dr. Hill showcases his proficiency on the program Graham Hill: Murder Detective 

What’s Next?

By asking these questions and engaging in education and clinical supervision with experts in the fields of play therapy and trauma, we can deepen our understanding of how to listen to the voices of children who have been sexually traumatized.

In play therapy, listening isn't just about hearing words—it's about understanding the unspoken, unseen, and unheard, acknowledging and empowering children to reclaim their voices and no longer be silenced. To learn more, come to one of the upcoming trainings with Dr. Hill April 2024 Baltimore, MD or May 2024 Brooklyn, NY

Learn more about all of my treating childhood sexual abuse trainings here. Join me on this journey as we learn to see the unseen, hear the unheard, and create healing opportunities for children to feel and be unsilenced.


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