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March 25, 2010 Volume 31, No. 25

New family violence therapy stresses survivors’ resiliency

Strength-based approach

Focus is on victims’ abilities instead of problems

Thousands of men, women and children experience family violence each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Traditionally, therapy for violence survivors has focused on evaluating their trauma and pain. In contrast, an MU researcher broadens the therapeutic focus to empower survivors through highlighting their resilience, resourcefulness and ability to overcome adversity.

“Therapists and mental health practitioners can expand the lens of how survivors see themselves and help them recognize their strengths and the resilience they’ve learned from their situations,” says Kim Anderson, associate professor of social work. “Utilizing a strengths-based approach can greatly improve recovery for victims of family violence. As with any situation, helping people focus on their abilities instead of their problems increases their motivation and will to succeed.”

Compared to current approaches that emphasize diagnosing symptoms and mental health issues, the strengths-based approach helps identify survivors’ abilities, such as perseverance and overcoming, and how those skills can be used in their present-day lives.

“What are normally regarded as negative traits in survivors of family violence might actually be their survival strengths,” Anderson says. “Traits that practitioners often try to change may be extremely important to maintain and can help survivors thrive in environments where there isn’t violence.”

The strengths-based approach trains social workers, mental health practitioners, educators and students to uncover the positive in survivors’ life stories — the skills gained by enduring and coping with immense adversity. This facilitates a more collaborative process, where the professional and the survivor each use their individual expertise to develop solutions.

“Victims of family violence find it difficult to see their own strengths and self-worth because it’s often colored by shame and blame,” Anderson says. “Similarly, practitioners find it difficult because they tend to focus only on victims’ problems. Instead, they need to cast a light on survivors’ abilities to cope and overcome the adversity brought on by family violence. This reveals hope that they won’t always be victims of violence and they can achieve what they want in their lives, whatever their dreams are.”

Anderson’s new book, Enhancing Resilience in Survivors of Family Violence, is based on more than 10 years of research, teaching and practice in the field of family violence. The book includes case examples, research-based practices and assessments to guide practitioners and survivors. Anderson also presents the unique intervention of digital storytelling as a means for survivors to process and share their narratives of trauma, resilience and recovery.

Anderson is a professor in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences. In Fall of 2010, Anderson was invited to be a key speaker at the Recovery and Strengths Perspective International Conference in Taipei, Taiwan. The conference was hosted by the social work department at National Cheng-Chi University in Taipei.