Eight year old Jemma came for therapy after she had been systematically sexually abused by her uncle over a period of 7 years. Her uncle had singled Jemma out from an early age and established a routine where he was regularly on his own with her. As the abuse had started so young, Jemma had thought it was a normal part of family life. However, Jemma’s behaviour at school had become troubling and disruptive. It was only when she started working one to one with a learning mentor that she talked about a special relationship with her uncle and disclosed to the mentor about the games that he made her play.
The sexual abuse Jemma experienced had left her confused about her relationships and what was safe. Jemma appeared timid and shy during her initial therapy sessions. She carefully made drawings and was very well-behaved. However, Jemma’s mother and the teaching staff at school painted Jemma in a very different light and described her as disruptive, difficult to manage and isolated from her peer group.
Jemma often brought companions with her into therapy, teddies and dolls – ‘friends’ she called them who helped her feel safe. An important theme in her sessions was around teddy having to go to hospital after he had a nasty accident. Jemma, her therapist and the other dolls represented doctors and nurses at the hospital and each of them had a role to play in making sure teddy was ‘fixed’ and got better again. There was a sense of relief felt from all the characters when the doctor told teddy he could go home to his family and that he’d be ok.
When children are subjected to sexual abuse or assault often there are no lasting physical signs that something has taken place or that they have been hurt. Communicating their hurt to others can therefore feel more difficult because the hurt cannot necessarily be seen in a physical way. Jemma was trying to make sense of this through teddy’s visits to the hospital, using this scenario as a metaphor for her own hurt as a result of the sexual abuse she suffered. The fact that teddy got better and was able to go home again provided Jemma with the hope that she too could recover from what happened.
Over the course of her therapy Jemma became more animated and confident. She was able to show her therapist the hurt, angry and vulnerable parts of herself which at the beginning of the work had remained hidden. Acknowledging these feelings made it possible for her to process what had happened. In her later therapy sessions Jemma moved from metaphorical play to talking directly about her uncle and asking questions about what would happen to him because he ‘hurt me’. Towards the end of the work Jemma and her therapist were able to think about her relationship within her family and how this had been affected by what happened and about relationships in a more general sense.
As a result of her time at The Green House Jemma’s mother and her school teachers reported that she had started joining in playing with children her own age and more settled behaviour at home and at school. Her mother said, “My child is not as angry as she used to be and although she may not forget what has happened, she knows it was not her fault.”