Child abuse counselors are licensed mental health providers who have expertise in physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse. They may work with traumatized children or adult survivors of childhood abuse. Some mental health counselors counsel abusers as well. The methods the counselor uses depend on the population served.
A counselor who works with children may use assessments like the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children or Children's Impact of Traumatic Events Scale. She or he will set therapy goals that are appropriate to the child’s age or development level.
Young children often respond to play therapy. There are multiple methodologies, ranging from unstructured play therapy to highly structured interventions which utilize puppets or dolls as characters. Cognitive therapy may also be employed – this is, among other things, a way of helping children understand that they didn’t deserve the abuse. Children may need not only permission to discuss the abuse but the vocabulary to do so.
Counselors may be part of a team that includes social workers and even doctors. Sometimes, despite physical abuse, the goal is family unification. In this case, therapy will be directed at both parents and children.
Children who have been traumatized often have anxiety or separation disorders; some have post-traumatic stress or somatization disorders. They may have a range of internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Counselors can help them by teaching methods of stress reduction and relaxation. Counselors who want to specialize in abuse counseling may seek employment at clinics or centers that have the word “trauma” (or something closely related) in the name.
Counseling Survivors of Abuse
Adult survivors of abuse are another high needs population. In past generations, sexual abuse was highly underreported; many adults have carried scars across their lives. While females are victimized more frequently, males often experience greater shame. There is more stigma attached to their not having been strong enough or powerful enough to prevent the abuse. If the abuser was an older male, there may be additional anxiety over sexual orientation. There is also fear of being seen as a potential abuser. (Yes, some sexual abuse victims do carry on the cycle, but the vast majority don’t.)
Adult survivors may have dissociative identity disorder or other serious mental illness. Often there is a collection of anxieties and dysfunctional behaviors. Some people are overprotective of their own children while others are detached; they may be unsure of what constitutes appropriate affection or they may simply find affection triggering. Abuse victims often do show up at counselors’ offices years down the line, but they show up with a range of complaints. They may not see the connection between their present problems and their past abuse. This is why all counselors need training in issues of abuse.
Becoming a Child Abuse Counselor
In order to be licensed as a mental health provider, a person needs at least a master’s degree; with a doctoral degree, she can specialize further and contribute to the body of knowledge surrounding treatment of abuse victims.
Candidates may pursue master’s degrees in counseling or related fields like social work, marriage and family therapy, or counseling psychology.
Licensing and Certification
Child abuse counselors and other mental health providers must be state licensed. The process varies a little from state to state, but all jurisdictions require an examination and a period of supervised practice before the highest level of licensing can be awarded. A criminal background check is typically also required. Some states license counselors at a lower level while they are completing supervision requirements. Child abuse counselors may seek additional voluntary certifications in areas like play therapy.