Cognitive-behavioural interventions for children who have been sexually abused

RHL summary

31 March 2014
A 14 years old girl tapes her drawing and writing project on a wall during a group therapy session, Guatemala.
UNICEF/Susan Markisz

Findings of the review: Sexual abuse of children and adolescents is a serious social problem worldwide with public health consequences. To support affected individuals and their families, cognitive behavioural therapies (CBT) have been proposed. These involve problem-solving psychotherapy designed to help children and adolescents in managing stressful life situations and respond to stresses in positive ways. This review aimed to assess the efficacy of CBT in addressing the immediate and long-term sequelae of sexual abuse. It includes ten randomized controlled trials (847 participants) conducted in the USA and Australia. Most of trials were judged to be of low quality. Compared with usual treatment or no treatment (waiting-list controls), CBT appeared to have a positive impact on sequelae of abuse. However, a statistically significant difference was seen only in the reduction of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. No included study reported on adverse events.

Implementation: Cognitive-behavioural interventions in children who have been sexually abused show a moderate reduction in post-traumatic stress disorders and anxiety. No benefits could be demonstrated for other outcomes with the available data.

Cochrane review

Citation: Cognitive-behavioural interventions for children who have been sexually abused Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 5. Art. No.: CD001930. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001930.pub3



Despite differences in how it is defined, there is a general consensus amongst clinicians and researchers that the sexual abuse of children and adolescents ('child sexual abuse') is a substantial social problem worldwide. The effects of sexual abuse manifest in a wide range of symptoms, including fear, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and various externalising and internalising behaviour problems, such as inappropriate sexual behaviours. Child sexual abuse is associated with increased risk of psychological problems in adulthood. Cognitive-behavioural approaches are used to help children and their non-offending or 'safe' parent to manage the sequelae of childhood sexual abuse. This review updates the first Cochrane review of cognitive-behavioural approaches interventions for children who have been sexually abused, which was first published in 2006.


To assess the efficacy of cognitive-behavioural approaches (CBT) in addressing the immediate and longer-term sequelae of sexual abuse on children and young people up to 18 years of age.

Search methods

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (2011 Issue 4); MEDLINE (1950 to November Week 3 2011); EMBASE (1980 to Week 47 2011); CINAHL (1937 to 2 December 2011); PsycINFO (1887 to November Week 5 2011); LILACS (1982 to 2 December 2011) and OpenGrey, previously OpenSIGLE (1980 to 2 December 2011). For this update we also searched and the International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP).

Selection criteria

We included randomised or quasi-randomised controlled trials of CBT used with children and adolescents up to age 18 years who had experienced being sexually abused, compared with treatment as usual, with or without placebo control.

Data collection and analysis

At least two review authors independently assessed the eligibility of titles and abstracts identified in the search. Two review authors independently extracted data from included studies and entered these into Review Manager 5 software. We synthesised and presented data in both written and graphical form (forest plots).

Main results

We included 10 trials, involving 847 participants. All studies examined CBT programmes provided to children or children and a non-offending parent. Control groups included wait list controls (n = 1) or treatment as usual (n = 9). Treatment as usual was, for the most part, supportive, unstructured psychotherapy. Generally the reporting of studies was poor. Only four studies were judged 'low risk of bias' with regards to sequence generation and only one study was judged 'low risk of bias' in relation to allocation concealment. All studies were judged 'high risk of bias' in relation to the blinding of outcome assessors or personnel; most studies did not report on these, or other issues of bias. Most studies reported results for study completers rather than for those recruited.

Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and child behaviour problems were the primary outcomes. Data suggest that CBT may have a positive impact on the sequelae of child sexual abuse, but most results were not statistically significant. Strongest evidence for positive effects of CBT appears to be in reducing PTSD and anxiety symptoms, but even in these areas effects tend to be 'moderate' at best. Meta-analysis of data from five studies suggested an average decrease of 1.9 points on the Child Depression Inventory immediately after intervention (95% confidence interval (CI) decrease of 4.0 to increase of 0.4; I2 = 53%; P value for heterogeneity = 0.08), representing a small to moderate effect size. Data from six studies yielded an average decrease of 0.44 standard deviations on a variety of child post-traumatic stress disorder scales (95% CI 0.16 to 0.73; I2 = 46%; P value for heterogeneity = 0.10). Combined data from five studies yielded an average decrease of 0.23 standard deviations on various child anxiety scales (95% CI 0.3 to 0.4; I2 = 0%; P value for heterogeneity = 0.84). No study reported adverse effects.

Authors' conclusions

The conclusions of this updated review remain the same as those when it was first published. The review confirms the potential of CBT to address the adverse consequences of child sexual abuse, but highlights the limitations of the evidence base and the need for more carefully conducted and better reported trials.