Penny ParksReliving abuse in therapy sessions can be traumatic and put some off entering or continuing the therapeutic process – but there are alternatives, says Penny Parks in this guest blog.

I have been a therapist treating people with trauma and sexual abuse issues for more than 35 years. Often, general therapy requires people to tell their ‘story’, which, frankly, can scare away those with horrendous childhoods from entering into a therapeutic relationship. 

If it was a traumatic, painful experience when it happened, believe me, it doesn’t get any easier when you speak about it later on. In my early twenties, I remember my first effort to tell a trusted friend about my own nightmare childhood: I couldn’t stop shaking, sweating and crying. I was only able to choke out a bare minimum of information, but just couldn’t go on.

Some therapies only focus on the here-and-now, while others work on identifying how childhood experiences affect today. But when clients are required to give comprehensive information or repeatedly tell their story, it is a torturous ordeal. 

From my own experience, I didn’t believe that anyone needed to tell details in order to recover from an abusive past. So I set to work to make recovery as pain free as possible. I recognised the value of visualisation – now called imaging re-scripting – and implemented it into my work in the early 90s. 

I developed a structured, systematic cortical re-mapping approach to establish new neural pathways; gently producing profound, rapid and lasting core level change – producing full resolution. This approach, called Parks Inner Child Therapy (PICT), addressed the effects of trauma rather than focusing on details of an event, whether in conscious memory or not – allowing my therapists to offer a service that was gentle – enabling clients to retain their privacy, dignity and to work comfortably. Clients could disclose what they wished to disclose, or even nothing, and still reach resolution.

For example, a woman rang me with a question. She assured me that she knew she had to tell the worst bits of her story over and over to finally recover – as she was instructed by her counsellor – but reported that when she went into the session, with every intent to ‘tell it’, all she could do was cry. 

For the whole 50-minute session, she sobbed and could not speak. When she left, her eyes were red and swollen; her head was pounding, she felt nauseous and angry with herself for failing, plus she would then be troubled by nightmares and flashbacks. She wanted to know how she could get past that so she could repeatedly tell her story. 

I explained that I had no idea how to talk about extremely painful and traumatic experiences without feeling upset, but I could assist her to resolve those issues without the need for detailed disclosure. She signed up for the 5-day Quick Change programme I offer. She sailed through the week without any tears, but plenty of ‘ah, ha’ moments, even laughter and, most importantly, resolution.

Sometimes people worry that PICT wouldn’t work for them because they can’t visualise. Visualising is a generic word – everyone has a way of imagining in their mind’s eye; if not, no one would be able to recognise their car, house or friends. Whether a person makes vivid pictures in their mind’s eye, has sketchy, dim pictures or just has a vague idea of what something looks like, PICT is still effective. 

PICT is noted for being rapid, gentle and lasting. About a third of clients I’ve seen have come to me because they wanted to avoid the pain of repeating their story. 

Fortunately, there are other models which don’t require past details; cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one example.  But its drawback is that resolution is not the goal. As with many models, CBT’s aim is to teach coping skills to deal with problems left from abuse. But PICT’s aim is to reach resolution for those problems so you don’t have to drag them with you for the rest of your life. 

Because PICT’s focus is on the effects of abuse, the disclosure of events is not crucial. We work with the person’s problems and/or their worst memories. 

The memories are only represented by key words, so the therapist doesn’t need to know the details unless it is important to the client to share them – disclosure or not is always the client’s choice. 

For instance, I worked with two sisters who had been abused by the same person, the first only shared the gender and relationship of the abuser; the second wanted to share much more about her experiences – both had a positive outcome. 

Plus, because PICT practitioners don’t need to hear details of abuse they too are able to work comfortably and don’t suffer early burn-out.

I have no formal research evidence for the efficacy of PICT.  But I have helped more than 850 clients from around the world achieve resolution and the effectiveness of my approach is based on their outcomes.  

About the author

Penny Parks is the chair of the Penny Parks Foundation Community Interest Company. She is a psychotherapist who pioneered and developed the first stand-alone ‘inner child’ therapy model, designed to resolve childhood abuse issues and has been working with trauma and abuse issues for almost 40 years.  

She has written two books about her methods: Rescuing the Inner Child (1990, Souvenir Press) and The Counsellor’s Guide to Parks Inner Child Therapy (PICT) (1994, Souvenir Press). She is a fellow member of the National Counselling Society and the National Council of Psychotherapists and is patron to Personal Recovery Services in Somerset and The Haven Project in Essex.