Sexual Abuse and Play Therapy

Child sexual abuse can damage children physically, emotionally and behaviourally. It can shatter a child’s world and sense of safety. The majority of children who experience child sexual abuse experience a variety of problems, some of which extend into adulthood (Rutter & Taylor (eds), 2002). The primary harmful effects of childhood sexual abuse are psychological.



Sexually abused children are more likely than other children to:

  • Have a regression in behaviour, school performance, or obtaining developmental milestones

  • Have inappropriate sexualised behaviours

  • Become clingy or irritable

  • Have disturbances in sleep and/or eating

  • Have learning and social problems at school

  • Have poor self-esteem

  • Be self-destructive or aggressive

  • Start bedwetting and/or soiling beyond the usual age (WHO, 2017).


How you can help

  • Tell your child that you believe them.

  • Tell them you do not blame them and you are glad they told you.

  • Reassure and support them, tell them you love them.

  • Tell them you will try and keep them safe.

  • Try to understand as much as you can about the effects of child sexual abuse so that you can best support yourself and your child.

  • Access professional support for your child.


How Play Therapy can help

  • For children, play is their natural form of expression – a special language which is spoken through toys. Through play, children communicate what they cannot with words (Ater, in Landreth, 2001).

  • Stimulating the right hemisphere of the brain, which responds to non-verbal modalities such as play, art, music and sandplay therapy, assists in the processing of trauma (Gil, 2006).

  • Through using play to express their abuse, children can stay emotionally safe by, for example, making the toy feel the pain rather than themselves, or by making a toy the abuser (Ater, in Landreth, 2001).

  • Children learn to come to an acceptance of what has happened to them, and learn new ways of coping to protect themselves from further abuse (Cattanach, 1992, in Landreth, 2001).

Christine Harkin
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