What is Child Sexual Abuse?
Child sexual abuse encompasses more than what most people think. It goes beyond touching or penetration. In a nutshell Child sexual abuse is: the violation of a child’s physical space (both body and mind), their trust in adults and other people who are deemed “safe”, and impacts on the child’s emotional state are devastating. Child sexual abuse includes:
- Any sexual act (oral, anal, vaginal, touching/rubbing of genitals, etc) between an adult and a minor (in the US a minor is someone under the age of 18 years old) OR between two minors, where one individual exerts power over the other.
- Forcing/coercing/persuading a child to engage in a sexual act against an adult, a peer/sibling, or themselves. This includes both physical sexual acts (like whats listed above) or non physical contact (exhibitionism, voyeurism, exposure to pornagraphic materials, communication in a sexual manner using the phone (calls or texts) or via the internet (emails, live streams etc)
Child sexual abuse occurs in 1 in 7 girls, and 1 in 25 boys (Darkness to Light). It affects families from all walks of life and cultures. Although you cannot change what happened to them you can play an instrumental part in their healing process.
How does this happen?
Child sexual abusers come from all walks of life and their mannerisms can range from someone who looks and speaks elegantly to someone whose posture and positioning are more “rough around the edges”. All perpetrators follow a similar pattern in how they go about finding their victims and engage in “grooming” behaviors. They often are trusted members of the family, who embed themselves within the child’s life. Often times they are very loving, caring, and fun adults whom the child enjoys spending time with. They usually do not raise the antennae of parents or children in their presentation-they some how fit within your family cultural norm. Hence its’ often hard for parents/caregivers to see the signs that something going on. (This is not always the case, sometimes you do feel a little twinge in your gut but your not sure what to make of it)
Perpetrators use a period of grooming in which they build a trusting relationship with the child. They will seek out vulnerable children and then pray on their weaknesses. Often this comes to bear with the child who feels like they are “bad”. Whether it’s because they are always on punishment, being fussed at by parents and or teachers, or spanked, they are constantly the ire of adults in their life. The perpetrator will pray on these vulnerabilities, making the child feel good, by honing in and manipulating the child’s fears of being bad to induce compliance.
When the perpetrator begins to abuse the child they play on these fears. They may say things like “your so pretty”, “your my favorite”, “I love you”, “your such a good girl/boy”, etc, while they engage in inappropriate sexual acts on the child. They will also make it seem like these interactions are ‘special”, again playing on the child’s desire to be good, in combination with keeping the interactions a secret to keep the child silent. They my also engage in threatening to harm a loved one if the child tells.
For the child experiencing this they are wrought with overwhelming feelings of confusion. They feel uncomfortable, they don’t like the interaction, they feel pain (physical and/or emotional), they feel powerless, they feel like they are naughty, they feel gross, they just plain bad during these interactions. Conversely and the part that is talked about less often is that the physical sensation may feel good, physically, which often complicates there feelings even more as their bodies betray them. They want to say no. They want to express their displeasure. They may even do these things, but due to their size they are unable to stop the perpetrator. As the abuse continues their bodies protect them by using dissociation-where they disconnect from their body during these experiences. The brain in its wisdom will flood the body with endorphins which numb the body from the physical pain.
Outside of the abuse the perpetrator may continue to do all those fun things with the child. More often than not a child’s behavior will begin to shift. They may become more anxious and hyperaroused (display higher levels of energy and/or scanning of their environment and may even be “jumpy”) when they where quiet and calm before. They may be the reverse and become more isolated and quiet when they were more boisterous and extroverted before. They may continue to cause the ire of parents as well as teachers at school while the perpetrator continues to dote on them and make them feel “special”. How very hard and confusing this most be for a child, who does not have the developmental capacity to think abstractly as we adults do (we know that people are fluid, no one is all good or all bad) wheres children think very concretely (you are either good or you are bad). So the messages they receive are that they are bad, because most of the time they feel bad, and even with the doting they receive from the perpetrator their brain is now waiting for the abuse to start whenever they are around the person (or subtle stimuli the they have associated with he abuse, such as smell r sound) so the interaction for the child’s perspective becomes more anxiety provoking.
Disclosure: When it comes out
There is nothing more gut wrenching to a parent(s)/caregiver(s) than to either walk in and witness the abuse for their very eyes (which is a common way in which abuse is discovered) or to learn either directly from your child or from another party that your child was being abused by this trusted member of your family circle. You feel like shit as a parent, and begin to beat yourself up. “How did I not know?” “I did I miss this?” “I am the worst parent ever!” “I’m going to kill that” (fill in the numerous expletives that come mind). “My poor baby”. “I am so sorry.” and on and on it goes. You are a mix of emotions , the biggest ones being Fear of what may happen to your family and guilt for bringing the perpetrator into your child’s life. In the end all you want is to help your child not to suffer any longer. Conversely the perpetrator may be someone you loved, still love, like a partner. Part of your own way of protecting your selfie to deny what you witnessed and try to preserve your relationship. You may not share what you know or even convince your child that the abuse did not occur, because this experience is painful for you as well. You may feel feelings of guilt and shame around the love you have for the abuser which may negatively impact your relationship with your child. Your also coming from a place of fear and guilt. If this sounds like you, then I want to encourage you to seek out your own counseling support.
The perpetrator. Do we really care about their perspective? Not really but here’s a short glimpse. They will jumping self preservation mode. They may attempt to convince you that what you saw was not really what you saw (“Your mistaken, I would never do that”. “I think you had a bad dream”. “It wasn’t me you saw” etc. )They may admit it and say it only happened once and give numerous excuses as to why it happened, like they were drunk or high and they didn’t know what they were doing. They may pressure or threaten the child directly if they continue to have access to the child.They may attempt to convince the child that it was an act of love or that they didn’t hurt them and to beg them not to tell. If your lucky the perpetrator will be prosecuted and sent to jail.
Your child will be awash with emotions. They may feel relief at the secret being out. They may feel bad that they got someone in trouble. They will be frightened and scared about what will happen next to their family. They may be afraid that the perpetrator will come and hurt their parents or them. They may feel guilty for rupturing the relationships and the bonds. They may feel guilt and shame about he role they played in it all. They will often have nightmares and sometimes flashbacks (re-experiencing) of the abuse which feels overwhelming and out of control.They may feel mad at everything and everyone and often they don’t know why. They may have an increase in anxiety. Bedwetting, day time wetting and/or soiling (Enuresis or Encopresis are the official terms) which has a variety of coping functioning, and is often upsetting or the child and parents. Your child’s view of themselves may also be more negative and self-deprecating.
The healing process has no time attached to it. Each child has a difference response to sexual abuse and thus the process of healing moves at an individual pace, and that is ok. In fact as the child progresses through each developmental stage you, some of these wounds may pop back up. With early intervention the skills they learn with a counselor/therapist/psychologist can be translated to each new stage. Working with a counselor is not just about diminishing the guilt and shame but its about coming to terms and understanding deeply that it was not their fault and that they did nothing wrong. That they did not act as a willing agent, no matter what was told to them or how their body responded but rather their behavior in those moments protected them from imminent harm. Healing is about helping these children trust their voice, that their feelings and thoughts matter. That they have the power and control to say “no”. To help these children learn to trust their gut, that piece that tells them something is not right and uncomfortable and that they can share with a trusted and safe adult who will protect them. Healing is about forgiving themselves and loving themselves. It’s about shifting the blame from themselves to the perpetrator. To expressing those conflicting feelings and to be loved and liked unconditionally without the cover of good or bad. It’s about rebuilding and connecting with others in order to have safe, loving and rewarding relationships with others.
What you can do:
- Listen to your child’s story.
- Don’t pressure them into talking about what happened but listen when they come to you and share
- Let them control how much and how little they want to share
- Limit questions but rather make statements validating how they must’ve felt and how they feel sharing (“honey that must have felt so scary, I know its not easy to share this now”)
- Thank them for sharing (remember all that shame and guilt they carry), praise them for trusting you with their story (“I really appreciate you trusting me with what happened and how that made you feel”)
- Highlight their strengths (“Your very strong.” “Your so smart.” “That’s really kind of you”)-remember that sexual abuse has a way of attacking the child’s view of themselves
- Be patient (“I know your having a hard time right now, lets try this again”)-they may have regressed, expect this, and slow down.
- Be loving (“I love you” give hugs-see below)
- Be gentle
- Ask their permission before touching them (hugs kisses etc) at least in the beginning. (“Is it ok if I give you a hug?”)-remember your helping them find their power and voice again
- Help them be attuned to there own body (“How did that hug feel for you?” “How is your heart beating, fast, slow, or in the middle?” “your looking all around the room, your eyes are moving back and forth, how are you feeling?”)
- Normalize feelings and experiences (“When I get nervous I have a hard time sitting still and I look all around the room too”)
- Don’t shame them if they are masturbating (this is also a common in children, those who have been and those who have not been abused, but as a result of the abuse this my have increased and may now be done in inappropriate places at inappropriate times). Give them guidance and an appropriate place and time for them to engage in this behavior (it can be self regulating). This one can be tricky and I encourage you to seek support with the best way to handle this.
- Continue with your routines-don’t let them off the hook. Chores are Chores.Just don’t forget that they need your patience and they will need you to be gentle, otherwise if they have to make their bed daily then they still need make their bed daily.
- Reinforce that the blame is not theirs. That is was not your fault and that you love them.