To assist you during this challenging time, we have gathered information in response to the questions we most often hear when it comes to the well-being of children.
What Is Child Sexual Abuse?
The first step to ending child sexual abuse is to understand what constitutes this epidemic. Child sexual abuse definitions vary across disciplines, social systems, research efforts, and laws. There are many forms of child sexual abuse, including but not limited to rape, fondling, sexual assault, exposure, voyeurism, and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Sometimes, child sexual abuse is considered a type of child maltreatment, which also includes physical and psychological abuse as well as forms of neglect.
Sex abuse involves arousal or intent to be aroused. Children engaging in developmental play of a sexual nature does not automatically indicate an unusual exposure has occurred, nor does a partner bathing an opposite gender child denote intent to abuse. The context in which abuse occurs is the intent behind the acts.
The Offender and Steps They Take to Access Children
Trauma does not discriminate. People who abuse children come from every variety of socialized groups. Approximately 90% of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by someone the child knows. They are typically trusted and loved by the child and their caregivers, such as a relative, friend, or neighbor.
Abusers are impossible to identify outwardly because they are every form of person we know, from well-adjusted social icons to everyone’s favorite parent in the PTA, and in some cases, children abuse other children.
Abusers are persuasive and often speak to children on a level that feels more like an ally or peer. They identify ruptures in relationships the children have with other adults and use this to sway the child in their favor. This is often aided by a natural position of authority that a child doesn’t understand they can challenge.
- Seek out approachable, easily accessed children such as a relative or neighbor.
- Establish a relationship with the child by spending time playing with them, volunteering to babysit, becoming their buddy, or buying them games or presents.
- Break down the child’s resistance to touch by playing games involving touch, such as wrestling and tickling, resulting in confusion when the touch becomes sexual.
- Find ways to be alone with the child, such as babysitting, inviting them to sleep over, or taking them camping.
- Blame the child and coerce them to keep the secret by making the child feel responsible by saying things such as:
“You know you like the way I touch you.”
“If you tell, people will think you’re bad.”
“If you tell, I will go to jail.” or “If you tell, your parents will go to jail.”
“If you tell your mother, she won’t love you anymore.”
At the same time, children are taught to rely on external input over their feelings. It’s a normative part of development in which adults impress understanding in children their emotions are unreliable. The consequence is, if an abuser tells a child what they are doing is ok, children doubt their gut instinct which says otherwise, and do what they are told. This doubt plays into disclosures as well, as fear of being punished or creating disruption in the home overrides the instinct that something is wrong and needs attention.
To this end, caregivers can inadvertently play a role here too. If a child is made to engage in simple things like hugs with relatives, how are they to know denying sexualized touch by a trusted adult isn’t going to get them in trouble? Caregiver denial of the possibility of the act occurring feeds this insecurity further, often leading to false retractions, refusal to disclose further details, or future incidents.
Behaviors Abused Children Exhibit
The following is a list of behaviors associated with traumatic incidents and abuse. A child suddenly exhibiting any of these behaviors for unidentifiable reasons should be given a safe space to dialogue with a patient and trusted adult and repeatedly checked in with as they often won’t initially disclose the source experience.
- Heightened fear or anxiety
- Increased tearfulness or crying
- Changes in sleeping patterns such as nightmares, bedwetting, fear of going to bed, fear of sleeping alone
- Changes in appetite
- Irritability, anger, mood changes
- Withdrawal from usual activities and friends
- Changes in school performance such as lower grades, poor concentration, short attention span, or loss of interest in school activities
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Clinging to parents
How Might Parents Feel When Abuse is Reported?
If you feel destabilized by your child’s disclosure, know you are not alone. Like stages of grief, the stages towards acceptance and action often carry impact. It is incredibly common to feel the following:
- Denial. Your first reaction may be not to believe or accept something happened. Or you may believe it happened but not that harm was incurred. Parents often experience denial because the disclosure is too overwhelming.
- Anger. You may feel angry with yourself for a perceived failure to protect your child and likely will feel angry towards the perpetrator. Allow yourself to feel this to avoid being consumed by it.
- Helplessness. You will likely feel a lack of control. Asking questions about what to expect and keeping on top of case progression can help.
- Lack of assertiveness. You may feel too overwhelmed to proceed. Focusing on singular tasks, minimizing expectations of yourself, and delegating can keep things moving forward.
- Shock, numbness, repulsion. You may be triggered by memories of your own abuse. Personal intervention may be warranted to best help you help your child.
- Guilt, self-blame. You may feel it is all your fault. The offender did this and is the only one responsible for harming your child.
- Hurt and betrayal. It’s absolutely normal to feel hurt on behalf of your child and betrayed by the offender. This can be especially impactful when the offender is a partner or other close party. Grieve these losses.
- Concern about money. Investigations are time-consuming and sometimes carry financial impacts for involved families. Let us help you identify available supports.
- Fear of violence. You may fear the offender will respond to disclosures with violence. Let us help you engage in domestic violence support.
- Fear of drug or alcohol abuse. Stress and trauma are key triggers in substance misuse. Let us help you engage in recovery support for you and/or your child.
How Should I Act Toward My Child?
Children react differently to the abuse depending on age, the extent of the abuse, available support, and their relationship with the offender. Any sudden changes in your child’s behavior likely indicate something new of impact in their lives. The key is to check in often and repeatedly when you note such changes to allow your child time and space to share.
The single most important factor affecting your child’s recovery is the level of support they receive from you.
Your capacity surrounding the handling of the situation will directly impact your child’s reactions. A child who feels especially loved and protected often recovers more quickly.
Please consider the following:
- Be patient and kind with your child and yourself. Provide safety, love, and support. Allow your child to express their feelings, and let them know it is OK to feel whatever emotions present themselves. Ensure your child knows it was not their fault and they are not to blame. Ensure your child understands you have feelings about this too, and negative emotions are not about them.
- Do not pressure your child to talk about the experience. If the subject comes up, discuss it honestly and openly. Answer your child’s questions to the best of your ability. Allow your child to be involved in decision-making to help them regain a sense of control.
- Try to return to your family’s normal routine as soon as possible. A familiar structure will be very helpful for you and your child. Avoid becoming overprotective of your child. Give your child safety information, but avoid causing them to become more fearful than they already are. Help them identify safe people they can go to when they are scared or sad.
- Engage therapeutic interventions for your child as soon as possible. This problem will not go away and ignoring it will cause more harm. Your child is likely experiencing emotions they are not used to managing and will likely have questions you can’t answer.
- This kind of experience affects the whole family. Your other children will likely need attention and care as well. It is a natural reaction for siblings to blame or resent the victimized child for the disruption their disclosure has caused.
- Some things you can say to your child that will help:
- I believe you.
- I know it’s not your fault.
- I’m glad I know about what happened.
- I’m sorry this happened to you.
- I will take care of you.
- I’m upset, but not with you. I’m upset at the person that did this.
- Nothing about you made this happen. It has happened to other kids too.
Please note, if you are feeling torn between your loyalty to the offender and your loyalty to your child, it is of the utmost importance your child not bear this burden with you. We strongly encourage you to engage a professional to help manage your personal impacts, so you can best be available to support your child.
What Are ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences)?
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) are traumatic events that happen to children, including any incurred abuse of impact for a child. ACES are directly correlated with negative adult outcomes such as mental illness, substance abuse, and more.
This direct correlation has prompted the US government to work with communities to work on early interventions for childhood trauma.