People often comment about the resiliency of children when they are facing devastating circumstances such as divorce, death of a parent or abuse. Somehow the comment makes everyone feel better. Unfortunately, it is not true. To be resilient means that when something happens, you return back to your original emotional and cognitive shape. That would mean a child becomes who they were before the traumatic event took place. An abused child does not become as if he or she were never abused. A child who loses a parent never returns to being the child who had that parent. Children are in fact not resilient; they are malleable. To be malleable means you can be shaped; you are adaptable. A malleable object is one that can be pounded or pressed into another shape without returning to its original form.

This of course makes sense when you think about what a child really is. A child is growing, unfinished, developing, maturing and learning. Each of those words implies that the child can be shaped or is malleable. We concern ourselves with a child’s education, nutrition and habits because we know this principle. We want them to learn good study habits, eat healthy foods, get exercise and develop good personal habits as well. Parents, knowingly or not, are constantly shaping their children. We understand malleability.

Hebrews 13:3 says this: “Keep on loving each other…. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners [or as if you were bound with them]; and those who suffer as if you yourselves were suffering.” If we are to understand the belief system of an adult survivor of sexual abuse, then we must comprehend the malleability of children and enter into the experience of their childhood suffering as if we had been abused. If we do not understand, we cannot help.

Consider this Vignette

Let’s say at some point in your counseling practice you are confronted by a woman in her 30s who tells you that she was sexually abused by her father for 15 of her growing up years. Her mother knew and never said a word. She has decided to come for counseling because her life is falling apart. She has never told anyone before. She is depressed, anxious and cannot sleep. She has terrible nightmares. She can hardly function, her husband is upset and she is finding it difficult to care for her children. What is it you need to understand about her?

The verse in Hebrews says, “Keep in mind those who are suffering as if you were suffering the identical thing….” What would you be like, what would you need if you shared this woman’s history? This woman’s mother knew she was being abused and did nothing. What do you think that taught her? How might she be feeling having just told you her story? What do you think she thinks and feels about herself? What might she fear that you think about her now that you know?

She is depressed and sleep deprived. What happens to our minds when we do not get enough sleep? How well do you think she is processing? Think back to a time when you had to function without sleep. What do you think it might be like to get into bed at night, utterly exhausted, next to a man, and then spend the night having nightmares one after another of your father raping you? How do you suppose she might feel about sex with her husband? Do you think she might want to die, or hurt herself, or ingest any substance she can find in order to keep going or get some sleep?

What do you suppose she thinks about God? Do you think she is confident that God loves her or that He protects her or that she matters to Him? Do you think it will be easy for her to trust you or do you think she might be filled with fear? What might you want or need in these circumstances?

A woman who was chronically abused by her father for 15 years thinks about herself, her life and her relationships through the grid of the abuse. She may have encountered situations where people proved trustworthy, but she does not trust. She may have heard thousands of words about how God loves her, but she believes she is trash, somehow an exception to the rule. Her abuse supports her strong need for control as a means of surviving the trauma.

This woman was a malleable child who absorbed lessons and beliefs about life, God, relationships and herself in the context of ongoing sexual abuse. Children think concretely. They learn through their five senses. Her senses were continually assaulted while she was being treated like trash and probably told the same thing. Her beliefs will not be undone simply by words…words are how we do therapy, and yet words will not be sufficient.

How Counseling Helps

She desperately needs someone who will keep on loving, who will endure and prove trustworthy. Those qualities have to be brought down into flesh and blood actualities. Human relationships have been smashed beyond recognition in this life. Trust, hope and love are foreign concepts. The character of God demonstrated in the flesh over time is what this woman will need as she begins to tell her story and face the lies that have ruled her life. The therapist becomes the representative of this God to the survivor. The work of the therapist is to teach in the seen that which is true in the unseen. She has previously learned about fathers, trust, love and refuge from one who emulated the father of lies. The unseen has been lived out before her and she has learned her lessons well. The therapist’s words, tone of voice, actions, body movements, responses to rage, fear and failure all become ways that the survivor learns about herself, relationships and God.

As we untangle her belief systems and confront the lies, the reputation of God Himself is at stake in the life of the therapist. We are called to represent Him well.

[Used by permission; first published in Christian Counseling Today, vol. 16, no. 3]