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How to Help Victims of Child Abuse Overcome Depression

written by: Mandy Dobbins Harris • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 5/20/2011

This article is a discussion of child abuse and its effects with an in-depth look at helping a child overcome depression. An extensive list of strategies to help a survivor of abuse is provided as well as some resources and how to find other support in your efforts to help.

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    Overcoming Depression

    Child abuse and depression often go hand in hand. Children who have been abused have had their basic trust in others and the world shattered. They may often feel guilty or to blame for the abuse, defective, bad, unloved, unwanted and insignificant as well as helpless or hopeless. Therefore, unconditional, non-judgmental, warm and otherwise supportive attention is greatly valuable in helping them overcome their depression.

    If you are caring for a child who was abused by another family member, remember you are not to blame. Additionally, please do not talk poorly about the abuser in front of the child. They are important to that child regardless of what they have done. Often, a boy's self esteem is measured by his opinion of his father and a girl's self esteem by her view of her mother. Therefore, attacking these individuals in effect is an attack on the child. Even if the child expresses anger and negative opinions of their parent/caretaker, please do not engage in this repertoire yourself. It is normal and totally understandable to have mixed feelings about the person including anger but use your support system to vent these feelings.

    Sometimes caregivers of abused children feel sorry for the children in question and in an effort to be supportive, inadvertently treat them as if they were defective. You may feel bad about setting limits, denying requests or setting boundaries. However, these limits and boundaries are exactly what they need in order to feel safe and secure. They don't need to be allowed to break rules, treat others poorly, nor get everything for which they ask. However, they do need to feel safe. For a physically abused child, corporal punishment may not be the best choice of action.

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    Helping Strategies

    Take Action

    • Educate yourself about the effects of child abuse and depression.
    • Maintain an open door of communication with the child. Avoid lecturing, excessive questioning, and don't minimize, or give ultimatums such as "get over it." Let them know you are available to talk about the abuse but only when they are ready. Don't force them to talk. However, acknowledge the depression and how you see this evident in their behavior and your concern for them.
    • Avoid unsolicited advice. Just listen!
    • Encourage them to write. Journals, stories, poems or letters to the abuser (don't mail) are examples. It is important that they get it all out.
    • Acknowledge the depression and abuse and include other family members or children in an age appropriate fashion. Unacknowledged depression/abuse becomes the "big white elephant" in the room that everyone knows is there but no one talks about and this creates confusion and anxiety.
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    Helping Strategies

    Take Action

    • Get involved in the child's life. The child's school is a valuable resource. The school typically has a school counselor, may have support groups available and will have referrals to helping professionals in your area. It can be helpful to educate the school personnel as to what your child is going through and to maintain contact with them regarding how the child performs at school and about the child's peer group.
    • Be aware of stressors such as a death of a friend, changing schools, divorce, court dates, visitations with the abuser, birthdays, significant dates, and parental custody being removed.
    • Help them change their story from one of being a victim who is unloved or worthless to a survivor who is strong, loved and valuable. You can help through praise of even small accomplishments, acknowledgment of strengths, continued reassurance that the abuse was not their fault, being engaged in their life and spending one on one, uninterrupted time with them.
    • Help them get involved and stay involved in positive activities such as youth groups, sports, academics and community groups that include interactions with others. When they are depressed, they may try to avoid these activities. Don't let them. Warmly encourage them to participate, reminding them of how much better they will feel even if they don't feel like it right at that moment. Maintaining a supportive relationship with them will help them value this feedback more.
    • While it is important to acknowledge the abuse and to talk about it, don't let it monopolize your interactions. Have FUN!!!
    • Help them have a healthy diet, sleep and exercise. Physical activities release endorphins and help a person to feel happier.
    • Some believe in the value of supplements particularly B vitamins and vitamin D for improving mood and energy.
    • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy or talk therapy is very effective in helping someone overcome depression and deal with the lingering effects of child abuse. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps to change the way a person thinks and stops intrusive negative thoughts is shown to be very helpful with depression. Some ways to find a therapist in your area are to look in the yellow pages, or speak to the child's pediatrician, school counselor, or religious leader.
    • Support Group: A group of individuals who have had similar experiences come together to talk about those experiences and to support or help each other heal. Look for one that addresses child abuse and/or depression.
    • Antidepressant: You can consider using antidepressants if the depression is severe and with the advice of a doctor. However, weigh the cost versus benefits. Sometimes, suicidal attempts increase after an antidepressant is begun. The National Institute of Mental Health has lots of information about antidepressant medication for children and including a discussion of the risks versus benefits. You can also read What Medications are Suitable for Child Depression?

    DON'T GIVE UP! Depression can be exhausting to caretakers of a depressed person. But, remember, depression is treatable. When seeking to help someone overcome depression, please be sure to help yourself. We are not effective helpers to others when we are not meeting our own needs.

    If you are concerned that a child is being abused, please report the abuse to an adult, school counselor, family services in your area, the police or someone who can get the child help. If you live in the United States you can also call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-a-child (22 4453).

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    References/Resources

    Teen Depression: A Guide for Parents and Teachers; Melinda Smith, M.A.,and Suzanne Barston Contributions by Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last Reviewed November 2010 http://www.helpguide.org/mental/depression_teen.htm

    Antidepressant Medication for Children and Adolescents; Information for Parents and Caregivers; National Institute of Mental Health http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/updates/2005/antidepressant-medications-for-children-and-adolescents-information-for-parents-and-caregivers.shtml

    National Child Abuse Statistics; Child Help, http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics

    National Suicide Lifeline; 1-800-273-TALK (8255)