Bronagh Starrs is Programme Director for the MSc Adolescent Psychotherapy in Dublin Counselling & Therapy Centre in partnership with University of Northampton and Founder & Director of Blackfort Adolescent Gestalt Institute. She maintains a private practice in Omagh as a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, writer and trainer, specialising in working with adolescents, emerging adults and their families. Bronagh is an adolescent development expert and has considerable experience as a trainer in adolescent development and therapy throughout Ireland. She also teaches and presents internationally on the developmental implication of trauma on the adolescent journey. Her recent publication Adolescent Psychotherapy - A Radical Relational Approach (Routledge, London) has received international acclaim

‘A bad person did a bad thing’

- Working with adolescents who have endured sexual trauma


            Every teenager is faced with the challenge of extending beyond their familiar childhood landscape, entering the proverbial forest and returning with the holy grail of being situated in a sufficiently functional and personally meaningful adult lifespace. When sexual trauma forms part of an adolescent’s lifespace, growing up can feel like a swamp of bewilderment, self-doubt and disappointment.

            An over-simplification of the situation is that ‘a bad person did a bad thing’. However, it’s likely that the adolescent will hold the experience in a very different manner, at least initially. The sexually traumatised adolescent has a propensity to bear the shame of having been violated by holding themselves accountable, creating a pervasive sense of despair and devastation.

            In many instances, they live their lives as a painful statement of broken integrity and experience the physiological, psychological and interpersonal worlds as dangerous, unpredictable and hostile landscapes. Their traumatic arousal and chronically dysregulated affective state mean that they perpetually feel lost, unlovable and loathsome, as the experience of the self-as-defective becomes entrenched.

            When a young person first reveals that they have been sexually traumatised, I am mindful of the circumstances and nature of the sexual boundary violation itself, as well as the wider context and implications of this trauma within the adolescent’s lifespace. For many who have been sexually violated, the path through adolescence is more about survival than development. When trauma and development meet, both need to be supported.

            For the adolescent who has suffered sexual violation, any anxiety about the experience of entering into a relationally intimate encounter with a therapist is hopefully eclipsed by the rich humanity and sense of belonging cultivated within the therapeutic space. How the therapist receives disclosure of sexual violation sets the tenor for the healing work that is to follow. It is important that she compassionately acknowledges both the courage in telling, in addition to communicating the impact of hearing about the young person’s ordeal. There is a tremendous healing synergy generated through the experience of having someone, who is not indifferent to the adolescent’s pain, bear witness to their story. The relational sustenance in knowing that they and their suffering matter to someone is a great antidote to the cruelty and humiliation endured through interpersonal trauma.

            Once relational safety has begun to emerge, supporting the adolescent to find language for their experience and neutralising shame are the major pillars of the work. As these three components gather momentum, we witness the beauty of personal integrity infuse the lifespace once more, or for the first time. When working with young people, I am ever reminded of the statement that it is not what happens to us, but how we make meaning of what has happened, that defines who we are. And adolescents are meaning-makers par excellence, which makes the work tremendously hopeful.