Child Abuse Counselor Career Guide

What is the Main Focus of Child Abuse Counseling?

Child abuse counseling is an area of specialization within mental health counseling that focuses on helping abused children effectively work through their traumas in order to lead a healthy, normal life. Child abuse counseling often occurs as part of a spectrum of services that might include medical care, family counseling, social work services, or play therapy.

Counselors that work with abused children typically focus on working through feelings and emotions related to their abuse. Counseling sessions usually take place in a one-on-one situation, however, if family reunification is a goal, the abused child will likely be part of family therapy. Child abuse counseling also seeks to help children work through mental health issues that arise as a result of abuse, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, or somatization disorder.

There are many types of child abuse. When people think of child abuse, they likely first think of physical abuse. Hitting, punching, and kicking are the most commonly reported types of physical abuse upon a child. Unfortunately, there are many other cases that involve emotional abuse. This type of abuse includes yelling and name calling, as well as making hurtful comments to the child.

Another type of child abuse is that of a sexual nature. Children might be forced to engage in sexual acts with another person or be photographed in a sexually explicit manner. Some child abuse involves being touched without one’s consent. Exposure to pornographic materials is considered child abuse as well.

Acts of child neglect are a further form of child abuse. Children that are deprived of certain needs, such as food, clothing, or healthcare, are said to be neglected. Parents or guardians that leave their child unattended, be that in the home, in a car, or otherwise, could be prosecuted for child abuse as well.

What Does a Child Abuse Counselor Do?

Counselors that specialize in working with victims of child abuse must be adept at treating mental health conditions that result from the abusive trauma. Many victims of child abuse go on to have substance abuse issues, so child abuse counselors that work with adolescents and young adults may include drug and alcohol prevention and intervention strategies as part of their therapeutic plan.

Play therapy is often the go-to treatment for children that have been abused. Play therapy is an excellent medium for helping children to identify and process their thoughts and feelings, which can be nearly impossible for children to do so otherwise, especially those that have been abused. Essentially, the toys become the child’s words and play becomes their language, and the counselor uses this context to facilitate a corrective emotional experience.

For example, a counselor might present a child with two dolls, asking the child to act out a situation with the dolls that is similar to what the child herself experienced. Through this process, the child reflects her thoughts and feelings onto the doll. This allows the counselor to address the emotional and psychological traumas the child is experiencing in a non-threatening way because rather than engaging the child directly in a discussion of what occurred, both the counselor and the child are focused on the doll. The counselor and the child work together to find healthy solutions to problems, including changing the way that the child thinks and feels about herself in order to resolve her concerns.

In addition to processing difficult feelings, counselors might also use the play situation as a medium for dealing with the emotional and physical pain a child has experienced. The relaxed atmosphere, combined with the therapeutic value of play, is among the best options child abuse counselors have for working with abused children.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another commonly occurring mental health issue for children that have been abused. As a result, child abuse counselors might engage their clients in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as it is a well-established treatment for childhood PTSD.

For example, because of the trauma inflicted through abuse, abused children often have lingering difficulties and anxieties that lead to cognitive distortions about threats in the environment. Children may become anxious around adults, withdraw from loved ones, and have uncontrollable fears about another abusive event occurring. This, in turn, leads to significant avoidance behaviors that can cripple a child’s ability to function from day to day.

CBT helps children to identify these maladaptive thought patterns and replace them with problem-solving strategies to address those thoughts and feelings head on. Through modeling, in vivo experiences, and direct reinforcement, children learn how to challenge their anxieties and develop healthy skills that allow them to cope with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that result from being abused. These therapeutic changes can occur in a one-on-one counseling session or in a group CBT therapy situation as well. As a result of these interventions, abused children become empowered to overcome their traumas and lead a mentally healthy life.

Child abuse counselors will also often work with parents, guardians, and other family members in order to build skills that will prevent abuse or neglect from occurring again. This might take the form of teaching parenting classes, making home visits, or providing advocacy services for families involved in the abuse or neglect of children.

Many child abuse counselors also take on roles related to community engagement and education. Part of combatting child abuse is increasing awareness about the issue and providing people with the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions. Child abuse counselors might do this by offering trainings and seminars to families, participating in community events, and organizing public service campaigns.

Why Child Abuse Counseling is Important?

The importance of child abuse counseling cannot be understated. Gone untreated, victims of child abuse face many obstacles in the future. Mental health issues are prominent among child abuse victims, and as discussed above, include everything from PTSD and dissociative disorders to substance abuse and anxiety disorders.

Victims of child abuse also require counseling in order to be able to work through the emotional trauma that resulted from their abuse. Learning how to trust others again often is a goal of counseling, as are improved communication skills and the ability to advocate for oneself.

What is the Career Outlook for Child Abuse Counselors?

Mental health counselors that specialize in working with children that have been abused can expect strong job growth over the next few years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), mental health counseling jobs are predicted to expand by 29 percent. This represents much stronger than average growth than for other counseling-related jobs.

A number of factors are fueling the need for more child abuse counselors. First, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, mental health services are covered by insurance, increasing the number of families that can afford mental health care for a child that has been abused.

A second reason for such strong job growth in this field is that child abuse incidents continue to rise. In fact, according to the National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence, more than 2.5 million reports of child abuse are made each year in the United States, with untold more numbers of abuse cases gone unreported. This sad situation means that millions of children require some form of counseling, thus driving the need for qualified child abuse counselors.

A third primary factor responsible for strong job growth in this field is the increasing rate at which the population is seeking mental health care. As it has become more socially acceptable to seek mental health treatment, the number of families and individuals seeking services for problems related to abuse has continued to rise.

What Degree is Required to Become a Child Abuse Counselor?

To become a child abuse counselor, one must first complete an undergraduate degree in a major related to psychology or social work. In addition to introductory coursework in human behavior, undergraduate studies help students begin to develop the personal and professional skills they will need to be successful practitioners of mental health services.

Upon earning a bachelor’s degree, students must then complete a minimum of a master’s degree program. Child abuse counselors can hold a wide variety of graduate degrees, from a Master of Social Work to a Master of Education to a Master of Arts in Psychology. It is during graduate studies that students develop a deep understanding of the human condition, as a result of coursework in abnormal psychology, assessment and diagnosis, social work practices, and other coursework related to providing mental health care.

Many graduate programs require students to participate in internship experiences. It is during these placements that students get to work with real clients and hone their ability to communicate with and treat individuals with varying mental health issues. Individuals wishing to become a child abuse counselor might use their internship placement in order to work with children that have been abused, work with parents, or implement educational programs in order to raise awareness about child abuse issues.

What Skills and Qualities are Required for a Child Abuse Counselor?

There are a variety of professional and personal skills and aptitudes required for an individual to be a successful child abuse counselor:

Empathy – As with all counseling-related jobs, having empathy is an absolute must for child abuse counselors. Abused children are highly emotionally fragile, often leery of adults, and may not have the capacity to trust, at least initially. As a result, it is imperative that the counselor be able to identify with the child’s situation and make them feel understood and safe.

Child-Centric Communication – Children communicate differently than do adults, which requires a special set of communication skills for child abuse counselors. Using more simple language and having an abundance of patience while listening are extremely critical skills. Additionally, many counselors that work with children are trained in play therapy techniques, in which children can identify, express, and work through emotions in the context of play.

Analytical Skills – Sometimes, child clients will not be able to express how they feel, let alone explain what happened to them. As a result, child abuse counselors must possess high-level analytical skills that will help them decipher the specific issues with which the client is dealing.

Trustworthiness – Perhaps more so than in any other counseling-related profession, child abuse counselors must exude trustworthiness. Children that have suffered at the hands of an adult will likely have a difficult time being able to trust again. Therefore, child abuse counselors must be able to communicate and demonstrate their ability and willingness to be a trusted adult in the child’s life.

Kindness – Often, a counselor is the kindest individual an abused child will encounter. Simply being able to connect in a genuine manner with a kind adult will give that child the support he or she needs to begin the road to recovery.

Enthusiasm – Exuding a positive energy can quickly help a child abuse counselor connect with an abused child. With so much darkness, worry, and pain in their lives, children that have experienced abuse are more likely to connect with someone that is upbeat and high-energy. Kids are naturally that way, so having a caring adult that exudes those qualities in their lives is extremely beneficial.

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