Working with Victims of Abuse

In treating victims of abuse, the therapist’s first job is to develop a relationship where there is love, safety and trust. Without that foundation, not much can happen. When treating abuse victims, I favor an approach that combines the models described by Joe Dispenza and John Briere, both of which take into account new information on brain development as well as new research on complex-trauma treatment. The first step is to provide a milieu in which the patient feels safe enough to disclose. The act of telling one’s story of abuse activates negative emotions and beliefs that are encoded in the associated memories.

These scary, painful emotions and beliefs are now being felt in an environment of safety, support and love. The pain of the past is incongruent with the safety of the present, creating disparity. Joe Dispenza explains that this situation causes new emotions to be encoded with the old memories to, in a sense, neurologically reset emotions associated with past events. This process is repeated until the new emotions render the experience no longer threatening.

John Briere talks about the concept of counter conditioning wherein emotional responses fade when those responses are repeatedly not reinforced. Engaging memories of traumatic events in these new ways creates new neurological connections to past events. As the abuse victim learns and does more positive things for herself and others in a safe interpersonal and milieu-based context, she creates new neurological connections, feelings, attitudes and ways of being.

Neurologically re-conditioning memories can be a powerful therapy when administered in a safe and loving therapeutic milieu. Many creative approaches can be constructed for actually implementing this type of therapy, and I’ve had great success using them. Feel free to contact me directly for specific ideas regarding specific treatment techniques for abuse victims.

Brad Rentfro, LPC, is a therapist at New Haven Residential Treatment Center, a member of the InnerChange family of treatment programs for adolescent girls and young women.