As a criminologist studying organised child sexual abuse, I sometimes feel like I live in the ‘upside down’, the shadow world parallel to our own in the TV series Stranger Things. In the TV series, the ‘upside down’ looks like our own world, but darker and filled with unpredictable terror. Kids disappear into it sometimes, and occasionally something awful slips out of it to disrupt our brighter universe. For the most part, people would prefer not to admit it exists.
I’ve interviewed over 40 Australians who report being abused by groups or networks as children. I’ve met many, many more survivors from around the world. Each of them has escaped from their own ‘upside down’: a dark childhood ruled by abusive adults demanding their compliance and silence. Far too often, their own parents orchestrated their abuse. We now know that parents are amongst the most prolific producers of child abuse material.
Every victim of child sexual abuse survives in his or her own way, often by pretending the abuse isn’t happening. The majority of sexually abused kids never disclose at the time, but even when they do, research suggests that most children are not believed. When a child offers us a glimpse into their ‘upside down’, it seems that most of us don’t want to help them, or don’t know how.
The traumatic dynamics of abuse and memory make investigating and prosecuting complex sexual abuse cases very difficult. Profoundly abused children are the least likely to disclose their abuse, and even where there is forensic evidence, they may grow up having forgotten or even denying the abuse took place. Some may even ally themselves with their abusers who reinforce the victim’s desperate wish that the abuse didn’t happen. These impulses are understandable and require a compassionate and sensitive response.
Few people are aware of the true state of the science on child abuse. Instead, most people’s beliefs have been shaped by common misconceptions and popular myths about this hidden crime. Societal acceptance of these myths assists sex offenders by silencing victims and encouraging public denial about the true nature of sexual assaults against children. The Leadership Council prepared this analysis because we believe that society as a whole benefits when the public has access to accurate information regarding child abuse and other forms of interpersonal violence.
Myth 1: Normal-appearing, well educated, middle-class people don’t molest children.
One of the public’s most dangerous assumptions is the belief that a person who both appears and acts normal could not be a child molester. Sex offenders are well aware of our propensity for making assumptions about private behaviour from one’s public presentation. In fact, as recent reports of abuse by priests have shown, child molesters rely on our misassumptions to deliberately and carefully set and gain access to child victims.
According to Dr. Anna Salter, Ph.D., a foremost expert in sex offenders, “a double life is prevalent among all types of sex offenders . . . . The front that offenders typically offer to the outside world is usually a ‘good person,’ someone who the community believes has a good character and would never do such a thing” (Salter, 2003, p. 34).
They also tend to adopt a pattern of socially responsible and caring behaviour in public. Many have practiced and perfected their ability to charm, to be likeable and to radiate a facade of sincerity and truthfulness. This causes parents and others to drop their guard, allowing the sex offender easy and recurring access to children.
In fact, Dr. Salter has found that the life a child molester leads in public may be exemplary, almost surreal in its righteousness.
Myth 2: People are too quick to believe an abuser is guilty, even if there is no supporting evidence.
In truth, people are too quick to believe that the accused is innocent, even if there is plenty of supporting evidence. According to Dr. Salter, ” Normal , healthy people distort reality to create a kinder, gentler world than actually exists” (p. 177). She notes that in order to find meaning and justice in everyday life, most people assign victims too much blame for their assaults and offenders too little. In truth, it is hard for most people to imagine how any person could sexually abuse a child. Because they can’t imagine a “normal” person doing such a heinous act, they assume that child molesters must be monsters. If the accused does not fit this stereotype (in other words if he appears to be a normal person), then many people will disbelieve the allegation, believing the accused to be incapable of such act.
Myth 3: Child molesters molest indiscriminately.
Not everyone who comes in contact with a child molester will be abused. Although this finding may seem obvious, some interpret the fact that an abuser didn’t molest a particular child in their care to mean that those children who do allege abuse must be lying. In truth, sex offenders tend to carefully pick and set up their victims and “groom” their victims (Conte, Wolf, & Smith, 1989). For instance, Elliott, Browne and Kilcoyne (1995) interviewed with 91 child molesters, the all-male sample reported that they most often chose children who had family problems, were alone, lacked confidence, and were indiscriminate in their trust of others — especially when the child was also perceived to be pretty, “provocatively” dressed, young, or small.
To ensure the child’s continuing compliance, sex offenders report using bribes, threats and force (Elliott et al.,1995).
Below, a young pedophile describes the careful planning that went into finding his next victim.
When a person like myself wants to obtain access to a child, there’s a process of obtaining the child’s friendship and, in my case, also obtaining the family’s friendship and their trust. When you get their trust, that’s when the child becomes vulnerable and you can molest the child. (Salter, 2003, p. 42)
• Berliner, L., & Conte, J. R. (1995). The effects of disclosure and intervention on sexually abused children. Child Abuse & Neglect , 19 , 371-84.
• Conte, J. R., Wolf, S., & Smith, T. (1989). What sexual offenders tell us about prevention strategies. Child Abuse & Neglect, 13, 293-301.
• Elliott, M., Browne, K., & Kilcoyne, J. (1995). Child sexual abuse prevention: What offenders tell us. Child Abuse & Neglect. 19 , 579-94.
• Salter, A. C. (2003). Predators: Pedophiles, rapists and other sex offenders . New York : Basic Books.
Myth 4: Children who are being abused would immediately tell their parents.
The fact victims often fail to disclose their abuse in a timely fashion is frequently used as evidence that an alleged victim’s story should be doubted. Research, however, shows that children who have been sexually assaulted often have considerable difficulty in revealing or discussing their abuse.
Estimates suggest that only 3% of all cases of child sexual abuse (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994; Timnick, 1985) and only 12% of rapes involving children are ever reported to police (Hanson et al., 1999). A nationally representative survey of over 3,000 women revealed that of those raped during childhood, 47% did not disclose to anyone for over 5 years post-rape. In fact, 28% of the victims reported that they had never told anyone about their childhood rape prior to the research interview. Moreover, the women who never told often suffered the most serious abuse. For instance, younger age at the time of rape, a family relationship with the perpetrator, and experiencing a series of rapes were all associated with delayed disclosure (Smith et al., 2000).
Sex offenders typically seek to make the victim feel as though he or she caused the offender to act inappropriately, and convince the child that they are the guilty party. As a result, children often have great difficulty sorting out who is responsible for the abuse and frequently blame themselves for what happened. In the end, fears of retribution and abandonment, and feelings of complicity, embarrassment, guilt, and shame all conspire to silence children and inhibit their disclosures of abuse (Pipe & Goodman, 1991; Sauzier, 1989).
Boys seem to have a particularly difficult time dealing with sexual abuse and are even less likely to report it than girls. A review of 5 community-based studies revealed that rates of non-disclosure ranged from 42% to 85% in abused men ( Lyons , 2002). Research with abused males has found that the more severe the abuse, the more likely the boy is to blame himself and the less likely he will disclose the abuse (Hunter et al., 1992). In addition to self-blame, reluctance of boys to disclose abuse may be traced to the social stigma attached to victimisation, along with fears that they will be disbelieved or labeled homosexual (Watkins & Bentovim, 1992).
• Finkelhor, D., & Dziuba-Leatherman, J. (1994). Children as Victims of Violence: A National Survey. Paediatrics, 94 (4, :413-420.
• Hanson, R. F., Resnick H. S., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Best, C. (1999). Factors related to the reporting of childhood rape. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23, 559-69.
• Hunter, J. A., Goodwin, D. W., & Wilson, R. J. (1992). Attributions of blame in child sexual abuse victims: An analysis of age and gender influences. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 1, 75-89.
• Kilpatrick, D. G., Edmunds, C. N., & Seymour, A. (1992). Rape in America: A report to the nation . Arlington VA: National Victim Center .
• Lyon, T.D. (2002). Scientific Support for Expert Testimony on Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation. In J.R. Conte (Ed.), Critical issues in child sexual abuse (pp. 107-138). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. (on-line: http://www.law.duke.edu/shell/cite.pl?65+Law+&+Contemp.+Probs.+97+(Winter+2002 )
• Pipe, M. E., & Goodman, G. S. (1991). Elements of secrecy: Implications for children’s testimony. Behavioural Sciences & the Law, 9, 33-41.
• Sauzier, M. (1989). Disclosure of child sexual abuse: For better or for worse. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 455-69.
• Smith, D. W., Letourneau, E. J., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., & Best, C. L. (2000). Delay in disclosure of childhood rape: Results from a national survey. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24, 273-87.
• Watkins, B. & Bentovim, A. (1992). The sexual abuse of male children and adolescents: A review of current research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 197-248.
Myth 5: Children who are being abused will show physical evidence of abuse.
A lack of physical evidence of sexual assault is often cited as support that an alleged perpetrator must be innocent. However, research shows that abnormal genital findings are rare even in cases where the abuse has been proven. Some acts, like fondling and oral sex, leave no physical traces. Even injuries from penetration heal very quickly in young children and thus abnormal genital findings are not common, especially if the child is examined more than 48 hours after the abuse. In fact, even with proven penetration in up to 95% of cases, genital examinations will be essentially normal.
In one study, case files and colposcopic photographs of 236 children with perpetrator conviction for sexual abuse, were reviewed. The investigators found that genital findings in the abused girls were normal in 28%, nonspecific in 49%, suspicious in 9%, and abnormal in 14% of cases (Adams, Harper, Knudson, & Revilla, 1994).
An even lower rate of abnormal findings was found in a large scale study of the 2384 children referred for medical evaluation of sexual abuse. The investigators found that only 4% of the children had abnormal examinations at the time of evaluation. Even with a history of severe abuse such as vaginal or anal penetration, the rate of abnormal medical findings was only 5.5% (Heger, Ticson, Velasquez, & Bernier, 2002).
This low rate of abnormal findings was confirmed in a case review of children with proven sexual abuse consisting of 36 pregnant adolescent girls who presented for sexual abuse evaluations. Historical information and photograph documentation were reviewed to determine the presence or absence of genital findings that indicate penetrating trauma. Only 2 of the 36 (5.5%) pregnant girls showed definitive evidence of penetration (Kellogg, Menard, & Santos , 2004).
• Adams, J. A., Harper, K., Knudson, S., & Revilla, J. (1994). Examination findings in legally confirmed child sexual abuse: It’s normal to be normal. Paediatrics, 94 (3), 310-7.
• Heger, A., Ticson, L., Velasquez, O., & Bernier, R. (2002). Children referred for possible sexual abuse: medical findings in 2384 children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 26, 645-59.
• Kellogg, N. D., Menard, S. W., & Santos , A. (2004). Genital anatomy in pregnant adolescents: ” Normal ” does not mean “nothing happened”. Paediatrics, 113 (1 Pt 1), 67-9.
Myth 6: Hundreds of innocent men and women have been falsely accused and sent to prison for molesting children.
Over and over again, the media has raised the question whether America is in the midst of a hysterical overreaction to the perceived threat from pedophiles. Actual research, however, shows that, as a whole, our society continues to under-react and under-estimate the scope of the problem.
Prior to the 1980s, child sexual abuse was largely ignored, both by the law and by society as a whole. In the 1980s, when the scope of the problem began to be acknowledged, the police began to arrest adults accused of child abuse. A backlash quickly formed and police and prosecutors were soon accused of conducting “witch-hunts.” Although some early cases were handled badly — mainly because the police had little experience in dealing with very young child witnesses — there is little evidence to back the assertion that there was widespread targeting of innocent people.
In fact, research has consistently shown that few abusers are ever identified or incarcerated. Estimates suggest that only 3% of all cases of child sexual abuse (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994; Timnick, 1985) and only 12% of rapes involving children are ever reported to police (Hanson et al., 1999).
Further research reveals that of the few cases reported to authorities, relatively few accused offenders are ever investigated or charged. For instance, the first National Incidence Study (Finkelhor, 1983) found that criminal action was taken in only 24% of substantiated cases of child sexual abuse — a finding replicated by Sauzier (1989). After reviewing numerous studies, Bolen (2001) noted that in the end, offenders may be convicted in only 1-2% of cases of suspected abuse known to professionals. And even then, most convicted child molesters spend less than one year in jail.
Based on the high prevalence of sexual crimes against children on our society, it strains credulity to assume that the small number of cases that are actually prosecuted constitute a “witch-hunt”, or that somehow mostly innocent people are targeted for prosecution. In fact, statistics suggest quite the opposite: child abusers are rarely identified or prosecuted.
• Bolen. R. M. (2001). Child sexual abuse: Its scope and our failure . New York: Kluwer Academic.
• Ceci, S. J., & Bruck, M. (1993). The suggestibility of the child witness: A historical review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 403-39.
• Finkelhor, D. (1983). Removing the child – prosecuting the offender in cases of child sexual abuse: Evidence from the national reporting system for child abuse and neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect, 7, 195-205.
• Finkelhor, D., & Dziuba-Leatherman, J. (1994). Children as victims of violence: A national survey. Peaminimisediatrics, 94, 413-20.
• Hanson, R. F., Resnick H. S., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Best, C. (1999). Factors related to the reporting of childhood rape. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23, 559-69.
• Kilpatrick, D. G., Edmunds, C. N., & Seymour, A. (1992). Rape in America: A report to the nation. Arlington VA : National Victim Center.
• Sauzier, M. (1989). Disclosure of child sexual abuse: For better or for worse. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 455-69.
• Timnick, L. (August 15, 1985). The Times poll: Twenty-two percent in survey were child abuse victims. Los Angeles Times, p. 1.
Myth 7: If asked about abuse, children tend to exaggerate and are prone to making false accusations.
Contrary to the popular misconception that children are prone to exaggerate sexual abuse, research shows that children often minimise and deny, rather than embellish what has happened to them.
In one study, researchers examined 28 cases in which prepubescent children had tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease by forensically accepted procedures. To be included in the study, the children had to have presented for a physical problem with no prior disclosure or suspicion of sexual abuse and were required to have adequate expressive language capabilities. Each of the 28 children was interviewed by a social worker trained in abuse disclosure techniques and use of anatomically correct dolls. Only 12 of the 28 (43%) of the abused children interviewed gave any verbal confirmation of sexual contact (Lawson, & Chaffin, 1992).
Another study involved a perpetrator who pled guilty after videotapes documenting his abuse of ten children were found by authorities. Because of these detailed video recordings, researchers knew exactly what had happened to these children. They were thus able to compare what the children told investigators when they were interviewed to the videotapes. Despite this abundance of hard physical evidence, the researchers found a significant tendency among the children to deny or minimise their experiences. Some children simply did not want to disclose their experiences, some had difficulties remembering them, and one child lacked adequate concepts to understand and describe them. Even when interviews included leading questions, none of the children embellished their accounts or accused the perpetrator of acts that he hadn’t actually committed (Sjoberg & Lindblad, 2002).
Some people believe that recantations are a sure sign that a child lied about the abuse. However, a recent study found that pressure from family members play a significant role in recantations. Mallory et al. (2007) examined the prevalence and predictors of recantation among 2- to 17-year-old child sexual abuse victims. Case files (n = 257) were randomly selected from all substantiated cases resulting in a dependency court filing in a large urban county between 1999 and 2000. Recantation (i.e., denial of abuse post-disclosure) was scored across formal and informal interviews. Cases were also coded for characteristics of the child, family, and abuse. The researchers found a 23.1% recantation rate. The study looked for but did not find evidence that these recantations resulted from potential inclusion of cases involving false allegations. Instead, multivariate analyses supported a filial dependency model of recantation, whereby abuse victims who were more vulnerable to familial adult influences (i.e., younger children, those abused by a parent figure and who lacked support from the non-offending caregiver) were more likely to recant.
• Lawson, L., & Chaffin, M. (1992). False negatives in sexual abuse disclosure interviews. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7, 532-42.
• Malloy, L.C. , Lyon, T.D. , & Quas, J.A. (2007). Filial dependency and recantation of child sexual abuse allegations. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 46, 162-70.
• Sjoberg, R. L., & Lindblad, F. (2002). Limited disclosure of sexual abuse in children whose experiences were documented by videotape. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 312-4
Myth 8: By using repeated interviews, therapists or police can easily implant false memories and cause false accusations among children of any age.
Although research has consistently shown that children rarely confabulate about having been abused and false allegations have been found to be rare (Everson & Boat, 1989; Jones & McGraw, 1987; Oates, et al., 2000), the potential for false allegations continues to be an area of great concern in sex abuse cases.
Whenever prominent adults are accused of abuse, we frequently hear allegations improper questioning and suggestions that the child may have invented molestation stories to please probing authority figures. We also hear concerns that inappropriate, suggestive therapies by overzealous clinicians may have shaped or implanted the allegations.
Recent research suggests that these concerns have been greatly exaggerated ( Lyons , 2001). There is now a substantial body of laboratory research which finds that children are quite reluctant to discuss embarrassing events (Lyon, 1999; 2002). Overall, laboratory research using suggestive questioning has consistently shown that negative events, especially events involving a child’s genitals, are relatively difficult to implant in children’s statements. In fact, research shows that children are more likely to fail to report negative experiences that actually did happen to them, than falsely remember ones that did not.
Saywitz, Goodman, Nicholas, and Moan (1991) studied the memory of 72 five and seven-year-old girls for a standardised medical checkup. Half of the children received a vaginal and anal examination as part of the checkup; while the other half of the children received a scoliosis examination of their back instead. The children’s memories were later solicited through free recall, anatomically detailed doll demonstration, and direct and misleading questions. The vast majority of vaginal and anal touch went unreported in free recall and doll demonstration, and was only disclosed when children were asked direct, doll-aided questions. The children who received a scoliosis exam never falsely reported genital touch in free recall or doll demonstration; and false reports were rare in response to direct questions.
It is also important to point out that many abused children exhibit post-traumatic and behavioural symptoms. To date no laboratory or clinical research supports the notion that children can falsely remember elaborate details of sexual abuse perpetrated by a trusted teacher, corroborate each other’s stories in independent interviews, and develop post-traumatic symptoms — based solely on police interviews or suggestive therapy.
• Ceci, S. J., & Bruck, M. (1993). The suggestibility of the child witness: A historical review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 113 , 403-39.
• Everson, M.D., & Boat, B. W. (1989). False allegations of sexual abuse by children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 28 : 230-5.
• Jones, D. P. H., & McGraw, J. M. (1987). Reliable and fictitious accounts of sexual abuse to children. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2, 27-45.
• Lawson, L., & Chaffin, M. (1992). False negatives in sexual abuse disclosure interviews. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7 , 532-42.
• Lyon, T.D. (1999). The new wave of suggestibility research: A critique. Cornell Law Review, 84 , 1004-1087.
• Lyon, T.D. (2001). Let’s not exaggerate the suggestibility of children. Court Review, 28 (3), 12-14. (on-line: http://aja.ncsc.dni.us/courtrv/cr38-3/CR38-3Lyon.pdf )
• Lyon, T.D. (2002). Scientific Support for Expert Testimony on Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation. In J.R. Conte (Ed.), Critical issues in child sexual abuse (pp. 107-138). Newbury Park , CA : Sage. (on-line: http://www.law.duke.edu/shell/cite.pl?65+Law+&+Contemp.+Probs.+97+(Winter+2002 )
• Oates, R. K., Jones, D. P., Denson, D., Sirotnak, A., Gary, N., & Krugman, R. D. (2000). Erroneous concerns about child sexual abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24 , 149-57.
• Pezdek, K., & C. Roe. (1997). The suggestibility of children’s memory for being touched: Planting, erasing, and changing memories. Law and Human Behaviour, 21, 95-106.
• Saywitz, K. J., Goodman, G. S., Nicholas, E., & Moan, S. F. (1991). Children’s memories of a physical examination involving genital touch: Implications for reports of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 59 , 682-91.
• Sjoberg, R. L., & Lindblad, F. (2002). Limited disclosure of sexual abuse in children whose experiences were documented by videotape. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159 , 312-4.
• Salter, A. C. (2003). Predators: Pedophiles, rapists and other sex offenders: Who they are, how they operate, and how we can protect ourselves and our children . New York: Basic Books.
Signs of child abuse:
Signs of Sexual Abuse, Molestation, and Wrongful Touch of Children
There are thousands of innocent children being violated every day. The majority of them are being wrongfully touched right at home by a family member or a friend of the family. In other words, it doesn’t matter how well you think you know your family, it only matters that you know and react to the signs of abuse.
Most people don’t know what signs to look for, or they overlook the little clues in front of them. Through my own experiences of being a child that was wrongfully touched by a family member, I hope what I went through will shed a little light on what to look out for. Some of these things might not be anything to worry about, but they might also be warning signs of abuse.
1. Crying. A child that cries continuously when you leave them or drop them off with a person, sitter, family member, daycare, or elsewhere. Also pay attention if they start crying when they never used to cry before.
2. Sudden negativity. If your usually polite child suddenly displays rudeness or some other unusual reaction to a particular person.
3. Monsters. If your child tells you that there’s monster in the closet (or somewhere else), you should take this seriously.
4. Missing clothing. If you put your child to bed in pyjamas but find them with no clothes on in the morning.
5. Attachment. If your child suddenly by your side at all times and doesn’t want to leave you or suddenly they want to start sleeping in your bed with you.
6. Fear. When you ask your child if someone’s doing things to them and they get a look of fear in their eyes. They might not answer truthfully, but you might see their fear.
7. School performance. A dramatic drop in grades at school or a teacher’s notice that indicate your child is not listening or doing their work.
8. Pain or irritation. If your child (male or female) complains of pain when using the restroom. If there is redness or pain in their genitals, anus, or mouth.
9. Lack of attention. You’ll notice your child is not listening or if they have behavioural outbreaks and develop a negative attitude towards things they used to not mind.
10. Self-harm. You might notice that your child has started calling himself stupid or has started intentionally punishing herself (cutting, hitting herself in the head, etc.).
11. New vocabulary. Your child might suddenly ask you to touch their private area, or they might have new words for their body parts.
12. Underwear. If your child is constantly changing their underwear because they feel dirty.
13. Blood or infection. If you see any signs of infection or blood in their underwear, take them to the doctor right away.
14. Sexualised play. If sexuality suddenly becomes a theme of your child’s games with dolls or toys, especially if the dolls suddenly start performing sex acts you didn’t know they even knew about.
15. Inappropriate touch or sexual behaviour. If your child tries to touch children or adults in their private areas, or if sex suddenly becomes a topic.
16. Sexual kissing. Tongue or sexual kissing can be a sign.
17. Self-penetration. If young children putting fingers or toys in their anus or vagina.
18. Sleep issues. If your child develops nightmares or other sleep difficulties.
19. Change of appetite. If they stop eating, start to binge-eat, or have difficulty swallowing.
20. Mood swings. Sudden bursts of anger, insecurity, or fear might be a sign that something is going on.
21. Indirect communication. A child who can’t talk about it might leave some kind of clue, hoping to provoke you to start a discussion.
22. Sexual imagery. If your child suddenly starts writing, drawing, singing, imagining, or dreaming sexually explicit things.
23. Regression. If an older child starts acting younger (sucking their thumb, using baby talk, etc.).
24. Fear of nudity. If your child resists removing their clothes for a bath, to change, etc.
25. Refusal to bathe or wanting to bathe excessively. Inadequate personal hygiene might be a sign of a problem.
26. Avoidance. If your usually affectionate and loving child suddenly avoids physical contact.
27. Bed-wetting or accidents. When your child is suddenly wetting the bed for no apparent reason and they never did that in the past, or if a potty-trained child suddenly starts wetting or soiling their pants.
28. Lack of interest. If they start losing interest in things they used to enjoy.
29. PTSD symptoms. Many of the signs above are also symptoms of a post-traumatic stress disorder: Agitation, irritability, hostility, hyper-vigilance, self-destruction, social isolation, flashbacks, fear, anxiety, loss of trust, loss of interest, guilt, insomnia, nightmares, etc.
What If a Child Says They Are Being Abused or Molested?
The first and most important thing to do if your child tells you something inappropriate happened is to always, always take the child seriously, no matter whom they say did it. If they muster up the courage to come to you for help, you simply must respond like a responsible, caring adult.
1. Believe them. There may be a tiny chance this is all just a misunderstanding, but that is highly unlikely. Your job is to resolutely take your child’s side, protect them, and find answers.
2. Don’t freak out. Again, you must be the adult here. This is not the time or the place to break down or lose your temper. You can do that later.
3. Comfort them. The child needs your love and reassurance now. Make sure they know that it’s not their fault, that you are on their side, and that you will do everything in your power to prevent anything like this from happening again.
4. Make them safe. Make every change you need to make to remove the child from danger and cut off that adult’s access to your child: not tomorrow, not next week, but now. If you need to change where you live, then do it. If you must pull them out of school, do it. If your child was abused by a family member, you must break that family tie to protect your child, at least until you find another solution. This is not the time to delay, keep secrets, or worry what people think. The only thing that matters is your child’s safety.
5. Get help. Call the police, go to the doctor, file reports, enlist services, find counsellors. Get all the help you need to protect your child and help them (and you, and your family) recover.
Signs That an Adult Might Be Sexually Abusing Your Child
It’s up to parents, family members, and friends to keep an eye out for the following “grooming” behaviours in the adults who come into contact with a child:
• Overbearing imposition. If the older person refuses to give the child privacy and imposes themselves physically in the child’s space. If they demand control over the child.
• Bullying. Picking on or ostracising a child.
• Playing favourites. Choosing one favourite or “pet” child and treating them better than the others. Flattering, praising, complimenting, being overly attentive to, and rewarding one child.
• Insisting on contact. If the older person goes out of their way to offer to babysit or take the child on overnight trips.
• Insisting on physical contact. If the older person insists on physical “affection” (a kiss, a hug, a “playful” wrestle, etc.).
• Demanding time. If an older person arranges for uninterrupted time alone with a child.
• Gifts. If they give a child gifts for no apparent reason.
• Disregard of privacy. If they talk about the child’s body, if they interrupt a child who’s in the bathroom or dressing, or if they embarrass or lack regard for the child’s privacy.
• Preoccupation with anatomy. If the older person shows interest in the child’s sexual development and growth. If they fixate upon or repeatedly bring up the subject of the child’s appearance or development.
• Secrets. If the older person tries to get the child to keep something secret.
• Over-sharing. An older person who shares inappropriate personal information and mature confidences with a child.
• Playing the “good guy.” If they try to convince the child that they are the only one who really cares. If they try to isolate and cut the child off from their family and friends by disrespecting and undercutting those relationships.
Talking to Your Child About Sexual Abuse
These are a few things that I have experienced and have seen happen with children that have been abused.
• If you feel your child is being violated, don’t be afraid to ask them, but do it in a safe and private setting.
• Reassure your child that it’s okay to tell you, that you won’t get upset, and that it’s not their fault.
• Also reassure them that if someone threatened violence, to them or anyone else, that they don’t have to worry. If that’s one thing a violator does— they scare the abused child by saying that if they tell, they’ll endanger themselves or a family member.
• If your child says it’s a family member, don’t doubt them by thinking no, that couldn’t be, because I’m sorry to tell you, YES, it can be, and there’s a good chance it is true. Some family members take advantage of that proximity. Sibling sexual abuse and sibling incest happens.