What Parents Should Know About Sexual Abuse
Note: The following are excerpts from an interview prepared for radio broadcast in the Summer of 1995 with Dr. Steven M. Gentry. The feminine case is used to refer to the victim; this is done for the sake of clarity and simplicity only, and in no way implies that genders and roles in abuse are so rigidly defined.
A. Sexual abuse occurs only among strangers (national figures indicate that 85% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the victim).
B. Children provoke sexual abuse by their seductive behavior (abuse is typically a premeditated, planned act by the perpetrator, who is careful and calculating in setting up and executing his plans).
C. Most victims tell someone about the abuse (estimates suggest that 2/3 of victims never tell of their abuse due to a fear of being blamed, punished, or not being believed).
D. Men and women sexually abuse children equally (approximately 90% of perpetrators are men, most of whom are heterosexual and concurrently involved in a consenting sexual relationship).
E. If a child does not want to be touched, they can say “stop!” (Children typically trust those older than them and therefore don’t question their motives or actions; indeed children are taught to respect and obey their elders. Moreover, older children and adults exceed younger children in physical strength, knowledge (some victims report that they assumed that everyone gets abused), and sophistication. Finally, the perpetrator possesses the element of surprise.
F. All sexual abuse victims are girls (studies suggest that one of four girls and one of six to eight boys under age 18 are victims of sexual abuse).
G. Incest (illicit sexual contact between relatives) is an isolated, one-time incident (most incestuous abuse doesn’t stop until it’s reported; research indicates it often continues for two or more years before it is reported).
Q: What are some signs indicating that a child may have been sexually abused?
While any acute trauma or stressful event is likely to affect a child’s mood and behavior; the following symptoms are among the most common sequelae produced by sexual victimization. Victims of abuse often show a sudden increase in:
~ sadness, depression, listlessness, loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities (e.g., a young child may show a notable decrease in exuberant, spontaneous play).
~ irritability, mood swings, temper tantrums
~ anxiety, avoidance, fearfulness and clinginess, nightmares, sleep disturbance
~ reluctance to go or be with certain people, rejection of physical affection
~ appetite disturbance, wetting or soiling of underwear, physical complaints (e.g., aches, pains)
~ poor school performance, poor concentration
~ preoccupation with one’s own or other’s private parts
Q: What are some of the ways in which sexual abuse affects a child?
Victims of abuse often report a host of feelings related to their abuse. These include confusion, guilt, sadness, anger, fear, self-doubt, and shame. The extent to which a child is traumatized depends on a number of factors, such as:
* the age of the child at the time of the abuse;
* the gender of the child;
* the severity, frequency, and duration of the abuse;
* the relationship of the child to the perpetrator;
* the perpetrator’s use of manipulation, coercion, or threats;
* the parents’ (and other caregivers’) responses to the child’s disclosure about the abuse; and
* the personality of the child.
Q: Could you elaborate further on the emotional impact of sexual abuse on a child?
Confusion: While abuse is, by definition, among the most painful traumas a person can experience, there may be positive aspects to it for the victim. These most often occur in the form of 1) individualized attention and/or 2) sexual touch. Either one of these powerful factors may lead the victim to confuse sexual behavior with caring and being close. Additional confusion may ensue when children — who often view their parents as perfect, all-knowing, and all-powerful — must reconcile this belief with the reality that their parents did not (and in fact, could not) protect/rescue them.
Fear: If the abuse was incest, the child may feel that no place – even her own home or bedroom – is a safe place. Incest has a particularly strong effect upon the victim’s ability to trust others, even those close to her. Regardless of the source of the abuse, the victim may continue to worry about retribution by the perpetrator once she has “told on” him. Additionally, young girls who lack a clear understanding of reproduction may worry that the abuse – even if it didn’t involve intercourse – may lead to pregnancy.
Guilt: Victims often say “it’s my fault”. They chastise themselves (“Why did I let this hap- pen?”) and second-guess their decisions (“If I had just done … differently.”; “If only . . .”). Too, they may feel guilty for any pleasurable sensations they may have experienced during the abuse.
Shame: This is perhaps the most evident emotion, and also the most pernicious; it is a primary reason victims choose to avoid thinking about or discussing their abuse. Victims often describe feeling different from other kids. They fear that other children will find out what has happened and will reject them. Their self-image suffers as they see themselves as dirty, cheapened, useless, failures, or conclude that “I’m only good for one thing.”
Sadness: Where there is shame, sadness is sure to follow. The victim may conclude she is a bad person (“I’m no good to anybody anymore”), feel worthless, and feel trapped by feelings and perceptions that may seem like they’ll never go away. It is not uncommon for the sadness to lead to feelings of hopelessness and suicide.
Anger: Anger is typically the last emotion a victim experiences. While the perpetrator should clearly be the target of such anger, the victim may find that her anger “spills over” against herself (“I hate myself”), parents, and – if the perpetrator was a man – men in general.
Q: How should a parent best respond when a child discloses that she has been sexually abused?
1. Most importantly, believe your child. Children seldom have a motive for making something this serious up.
2. Remain calm in your child’s presence. You becoming upset is precisely what she fears most, and it will hinder rather than help her.
3. Allow her to speak and do not pressure her. Initially, too much interrupting on your part (i.e., to uncover details) may scare and intimidate her.
4. Praise her for disclosing the abuse. Breaking the silence proves to be an extremely hard thing for many children to do, even with those they trust most.
5. Continually reassure your child that the perpetrator, not her, is to blame for the abuse. Guilt and shame are among the most potent emotions accompanying victimization; what you say early on can keep negative emotions from intensifying.
6. Assure her that she is safe, that you’re sorry that she’s been hurt, and that you will protect her from further abuse.
7. Respect your child’s privacy by telling only those who must know about the abuse, beginning with the police, the Children’s Justice Center, the Division of Child and Family Services, or a counselor or church leader. Note that you do not need any evidence for the abuse; others bear the burden of investigating the veracity of the claims. Your role as a parent is to support, encourage, and protect your child.
Q: What kind of help is available for victims of abuse?
Next to prevention, early intervention is the best way to help children deal with sexual abuse. Counseling can play a significant role in the healing process for the child (and for other family members as well). The length of treatment varies according to a number of factors (see below). Every community has a number of therapists with specific training and expertise in working with victims of abuse. In addition, there are a number of sensitive, well-written books on the topic that can aid both parent and child regain a sense of order and control in their lives.
Fortunately, victims and families affected by abuse can often qualify for state funding through the Crime Victims Reparations (CVR) office, located in Salt Lake City. This funding offsets the cost of counseling for the victim and her immediate family members; the program coordinates with the family’s health insurance policy to pay 100% of the costs of treatment. It can also be used for other costs (babysitting, transportation, etc.) incidental to the abuse. For more information, simply speak with a counselor, the Children’s Justice Center, or call CVR (1-800-621-7444).
Q: Does counseling really help, and if so, how?
Occasionally, parents (and victims themselves) resist the idea of counseling, for a number of reasons. Some see it as a waste of time, believing that “time heals all wounds”. Others feel that counseling will only further emphasize the trauma and delay healing (“we just need to move on with our lives”). Still others are concerned about the costs of treatment, or that it will go on too long. And most find the emotions and memories overwhelming.
While time does heal some wounds, it falls far short from healing all of them. Granted, facing feelings and memories of abuse head-on is difficult, but the costs of avoiding the topic are far greater and certainly more long-lasting. Counseling allows the victim a chance to meet with a qualified, dispassionate person to share her experience, clarify her feelings, understand the negative impact of the trauma on her ways of thinking, and learn to make decisions based on healthy coping skills.
Avoidance is a tempting choice, but it only compounds the problem, since feelings and perceptions tend to solidify over time within the child’s mind. Professional help from a competent counselor can directly, thoroughly, and effectively address the problem.
Q: Suppose a child’s parents have just learned that their daughter has been sexually abused. Summarize your recommendations to them.
Follow the seven steps outlined in question V above.
As you meet with concerned caseworkers and professionals, listen carefully to their counsel. Contact a competent professional to discuss the case and determine if counseling is appropriate. As you have questions arise, seek out material to read on the topic of sexual abuse.
To be sure, learning that your child has been sexually victimized is a life-shattering experience, and it may feel like your whole world has come crashing down. But these feelings won’t last forever, and you’re not alone.
Don’t be afraid to lean on others, to open up and talk about your own worries, frustrations, and regrets. Ironically, while it takes emotional strength to address problems directly, doing so produces even greater strength. And all of this will make you more emotionally available to your child, who needs your love and encouragement now more than ever.
Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., a Child & Family Psychologist is the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah