A) Reporting Sexual Abuse
B) Myths about Sexual Abuse
C) Red Flags about Sexual Abuse
The child may be scared, worried about previous threats from the perpetrator, concerned about what you think, afraid what a parent or teacher might think of them, fear it was their own fault, or be protective of the perpetrator, towards whom they have ambivalent feelings. Do reassure the child that you believe them, are glad that they told you, let them know it wasn't their fault, that there are things that can be done to help them feel better, and that you are going to talk with others that can help them (following the BASER model).
BELIEVE THE CHILD --- "I believe what you are telling me."
AFFIRM THE DISCLOSURE --- "I'm glad that you told me."
SUPPORT THE CHILD --- "It was not your fault."
EMPOWER THE CHILD ---"There are some things we can do to help you feel better again."
REPORT THE CASE --- "I'm going to talk to some people who can help."
Try not to show you are upset by their story. The child may take your reaction personally and think you are upset with them. Do not make judgments; your judgments may frighten the child or actually be opposite to what the child wants or thinks. Don't assume you know what the child is feeling; listen to them and ask them what they're feeling and thinking.
Sexual abuse is a widespread problem in our society. It is estimated that one out of three girls (33%) and one out of five boys (20%) (Whitsell-Mitchell, 1995) are sexually abused by the age of 18. Researchers believe this is only the "tip of the iceberg" as sexual crimes are severely underreported. Sexual abuse has many negative consequences for the child, family and all involved. There is something you can do about it. Therapy is an essential part of the healing process. With treatment, children who have been sexually abused are able to lead normal, healthy lives by learning how to better accept and cope with the abuse. Here are some of the common myths people give as reasons not to follow through with therapy:
Myth 1 - Children who have been sexually abused will grow out of it. This is true for some children; however, there is no research or testi that can identify those children. Many children who have been sexually abused suffer both short- and long-term negative effects. These include: loss of appetite, nightmares, bedwetting, excessive fears, social or emotional withdrawal, obsessive cleanliness, change in sleep habits, inappropriate sexual behavior, difficulty in social relationships, decreased school performance (short-term effects), as well as depression, anxiety, isolation, poor self-esteem, difficulty trusting others, substance abuse, interpersonal problems, possibility of future abuse, eating disorders, suicide, aggressive behavior (long-term effects). *It is important to note that these long-term behaviors may emerge in adulthood.*
Myth 2 - Children are too young to remember being abused. Children's recollections are much better than was once believed. In the past, it was believed that young children could not remember events. Actually, they are able to remember events quite accurately. However, they simply lack the verbal skills to express themselves.
Myth 3 - How can this be bothering my child? He or she never talks about it. There are several reasons why a child may not talk about the abuse. 1) The child may not have the verbal skills to express him/herself. 2) The child may fear upsetting the adult by talking about the event. 3) It may be too painful for the child to talk about. 4) The child may fear destroying the family. 5) The child may fear getting the perpetrator into legal trouble.
Myth 4 - My child was the one who was sexually abused. Why do I need treatment? There are several reasons why the non-offending parent should be part of treatment. 1) It is important to have a safe place for the parent to express his or her thoughts and feelings and receive emotional support. 2) It is important to learn how to help and support the child who has been sexually abused. The single most important factor in a child's recovery is the parent's reaction to the abuse (Kendall-Tackett, et al., 1993). 3) Sexual abuse affects the whole family. The symptoms of the child directly impact the family. However, research shows that 4) families who acknowledge and partake in treatment improve more quickly than families who do not. 5) If the parent has been sexually abused, the abuse of the child may bring the adult's problems to the forefront.
Myth 5 - Treatment will be expensive, especially if it involves the whole family. This may be the case for some other programs, but not for Family Learning Program (FLP). FLP is funded so that all services are provided at no charge to every member of the family. No family will be turned away because of finances.
Myth 6 - We have no time for therapy. While it is true that therapy takes time, treatment is necessary and essential. Most parents would never sacrifice their child's medical treatment due to time constraints, so why sacrifice his/her mental health? Ignoring the need for treatment will only worsen the problem and possibly cause serious long-term consequences for both the child and family.
Myth 7 - My family's problems are private. It is no one else's business. Chances are the abuse itself involved a component of secrecy. To lessen a child's shame and guilt, the secrecy must end. It is important to speak openly about the abuse. Furthermore, group participation can offer support and information from others with similar experiences. Confidentiality is maintained by the therapists and strongly encouraged among the group members.
Myth 8 - My child stated he/she was abused and then said nothing happened. Often times a child will take back what he/she has said (recanting) as part of a reaction to the disclosure process. Children may perceive that they are blamed or not believed. They may feel pressure from family members or the perpetrator to keep the family intact. A child may be threatened by the perpetrator to recant. Finally, a child's recanting may be a reaction to a variety of circumstances, such as court testimony, police investigation, removal from the family, etc.
The issues surrounding sexual abuse are extremely difficult. It would be easy to avoid or run from this situation, but the problems of sexual abuse will NOT DISAPPEAR. However, you have made the important first step for you and your family in seeking treatment.
The difference between rape and child molestation is that the child molester usually does not just suddenly sexually abuse a child little known to them. They often take time to "groom" the child. Grooming means in this context to gradually cross boundaries, setting the child up for victimization. It may start very innocently, just doing things with the child. Then the molester gradually does things closer and closer physically (e.g. sit next to the child, touch the child appropriately like shaking hands, putting a hand on a shoulder, an affectionate arm around the back, have the child sit on their lap, comb their hair, help put sunscreen on the child). The potential offender then begins to cross more of these 'personal space' boundaries. They may linger in these touches longer than appropriate, be more exuberant in showing affection, fingers seemingly accidentally touching more intimate parts, suggestions to be alone more and lying down with the child, wrestling or other activities which bring closer contact. One of our offenders said he would often take 6 months to a year to groom a child before actually molesting the child. He would justify this by saying to himself that the child was very lonely and no one else was doing what the child needed, spending time with the child, teaching them, being really caring and affectionate. These grooming activities are the "red flags" or warning signals that can be identified and watched out for by therapists and family members of offenders in treatment, by children who may be "lured" into an abusive situation, and by offenders themselves in identifying their pattern of abuse.
Berliner, L. & Conte, J.R. (1990). The Process of Victimization: The victims' perspective. Child Abuse & Neglect, 14, 29-40. N=23, 21 females, 2 males (10-18 years)
"Red Flags" or pre-abuse indicators reported by child victims (%)
"Grooming behaviors" are often done to prepare the victim to be compliant, taking small steps, gradually leading up to sexual activity. Children often respond to secrecy.
Justifications offenders give to victim children (%)
The majority (61% or 14/23) of child victims said they did not know that they were being sexually abused initially.
Others blamed themselves: "He told me I was bad, a slut, I thought I deserved it. I didn't know it was wrong but it didn't feel right. He made it sound like it was my idea and he was willing to teach me."
How does the Family Learning Program use this research in our practice?
Many non-offending parents are devastated that their child did not tell them about the abuse, blaming themselves for not detecting the abuse, not being the "perfect parent," or having a close relationship with their child so that they could confide the abuse.
Since the majority of children do not tell, parents can be reassured that there are many factors mediating their child's reluctance to disclose the abuse, such as believing in the authority, the threats by the abuser, not realizing or understanding they were abused, being told to keep a secret and not to tell their parents, etc.