How Does Mentoring Support the Healing Journey for Victims and Survivors?
People need people. We are social creatures! Each of us needs someone to encourage us when things go wrong and to cheer for us when we have success. So often it is others who see our potential and remind us of our worth.
For you who are at risk for or have experienced child commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC), the need for healthy, supportive relationships is even greater. The trauma that CSEC survivors have experienced is immense and the road to recovery is long. Having someone to walk beside them and encourage them through their recovery journey can make a huge difference. A mentor is someone who can provide this support. What is it about these relationships that can help survivor live up to their full potential?
1. Mentoring is a Restorative Relationship. Typically, CSEC survivors have a complicated history with relationships. Most survivors of CSEC have a background of physical and/or sexual abuse in the home. That means they have experienced significant relationship based trauma before they are trafficked. Their understanding of a relationship is further skewed during their experience of exploitation.
Victims often view their trafficker/pimp as a significant other, boyfriend or protector. Through the seasoning or grooming process they come to believe that this is someone who cares for them despite significant abuse. The result is trauma bond or what is commonly known as "Stockholm Syndrome." With all these traumatic experiences embedded in the relationship, survivors have little understanding of what a healthy supportive relationship looks like. Mentors can begin to fill in this gap by simply showing up on a consistent basis, investing in the youth, and modeling boundaries. By modeling a healthy relationship, mentors can provide their mentee with a healthy pattern for future interactions with friends, significant others, family, and other personal relationships.
Among the injuries done to a young person who has been sex trafficked, one of the most lasting and detrimental results of this trauma is the impact on healthy relationships. The multi-layered, complex trauma experienced creates attachment disruptions that can add to the long-term damage and make healing more difficult. Youth can become conditioned to believe that adult relationships are not safe and that all adults want something from them. A mentor can provide a healthy, restorative relationship to a young person, which can foster personal growth and optimism about the future. Whether the mentor is a volunteer, who is ‘giving’ their time to a young person, or a survivor themselves who has much to offer by way of their example, it is the relationship itself that is the vehicle for change and healing.
2. Mentoring Encourages Growth and Healing. Mentors play an important role in the healing process of a CSEC survivor. As CSEC survivors exit a situation of exploitation, they often have difficulty seeing their own value and worth. So defeated by those who have exploited them and even some of the systems of care who have tried to help, they accepted a false narrative about their ability to live full, prosperous lives. Mentors can help shine a light on the numerous strengths of CSEC survivors, encouraging them to reclaim their identity as strong, worthy human beings. This is particularly powerful when mentors are survivors themselves. Survivor mentors are able to instill much needed hope by providing an example of someone who has survived exploitation and come to a place of healing.
3. Mentoring Creates Social Support and Connection. Mentors serve as a connection to new experiences and opportunities (hobbies, educational opportunities, employment, social and cultural experiences, etc.). This connection provides survivors with additional groups of people to learn from and build relationships with. It is through these opportunities that survivors begin to establish a strong social support system outside of the mentoring relationship. Such a network is vital to the continued success and healthy development.
A mentoring relationship is unlike other relationships that one typically holds. It is nuanced in that it comes with an intentional focus on the growth and development of the mentee or protégé. A mentoring relationship provides a unique opportunity to explore ideas about self and have new experiences in a supportive context.
There are many ways that mentoring can be integrated into a comprehensive plan for healing and opportunities to reach forward toward a future of independence and prosperity. Formal mentoring can be implemented in groups, individually in a structured site-based setting, or in the community. Survivor mentors bring unique expertise to the relationship. Aspects of each of these approaches can be combined in one model. While there are many models, programs should be mindful of the standards of care in mentoring.
Ultimately, mentors provide the supportive and consistent presence that is so often lacking for victims/survivors of CSEC. Having someone who will show up no matter what, even when bad decisions have been made, or hurtful words have been said, can shift the way that survivors approach life and help them achieve their full potential.