Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky. The BBC’s Jimmy Savile. Both men known for decades for their positive public image and philanthropic work with children, now known as pedophiles. How did these men get away with abusing so many children for so long?
The statistics are alarming. The CDC estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. Studies show that 73% of child victims do not come forward about the abuse for at least a year, and 45% don’t tell anyone for at least 5 years. Far too many victims do not talk about their abuse until adulthood, if they talk about it at all.
There are several reasons why children won’t tell about sexual abuse. More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their abuser in some way, and have been carefully groomed: the perpetrator targets the child, gains their trust, fills a need, isolates the child, sexually abuses them, and then uses threats to maintain the secret relationship. The threats can be physical threats to harm them or their family, threats to stop filling the need (food, special privileges, material possessions, feeling special, etc.). The abuser will often threaten the child with the idea that the child won’t be believed, particularly if the perpetrator is a respected community figure – a threat which is all too often true.
There are even more reasons why kids might not tell about sexual abuse. Depending on their maturity level, the child might not know it’s wrong – especially if the abuser is someone they trust. They might feel confused if they know this shouldn’t be happening. They might feel embarrassment or shame about the abuse – perpetrators are skilled at shifting the blame to the child. They convince the child the abuse is their fault, so it’s common for children to keep mum for fear of getting in trouble.
The fear and shame that results from the abuse does not end when the abuse does. A sense of being “damaged” often sets up residence in the mind of a victim. If allowed to fester, it will affect the person’s self-concept and self-esteem. People who were sexually abused as children are at greater risk for depression, anxiety disorders (especially PTSD and panic disorder), conduct disorder, eating disorders, substance abuse and dependence, borderline personality disorder, and somatic disorders (like Irritable Bowel Syndrome) throughout their lives. There is also a higher incidence of suicide attempt, self-harm, rape, and divorce.
So if kids aren’t talking about it, how will we know if our child is being abused? There are many signs of abuse, and they vary by age and by child. In general, there are three types of signs: physical, behavioral, and emotional. Some physical signs include pain with walking or sitting, bloody or torn clothing, signs of physical harm to genitals, STD’s, UTI’s, yeast infections, and frequent health issues, either real or fabricated. Physical signs of abuse are less common than behavioral or emotional signs. Some behavioral signs include inappropriate sexual talk or behaviors, nightmares, regressive behaviors such as bed wetting or thumb sucking, changes in sleep or eating habits, increased aggression, avoidance of physical contact, avoidance of a particular person, a change in school functioning, a change in toileting behaviors, and withdrawal. Emotional signs include increased anger, sadness, anxiety, guilt, and fear (of a person, the dark, being alone, losing family).
Every adult should learn to recognize signs of abuse, and we must at the same time work to prevent it. We should teach our kids to be wary of strangers, but that isn’t enough. Since the perpetrator is usually known to the victim, a parent must build a trusting relationship with their child and teach them how to be safe.
Building a trusting relationship starts on day one, when your newborn learns that you will respond to their cries. As they get older it’s important to keep the lines of communication open and strongly encourage them to come to you with questions or concerns about abuse. Make time to talk to them, and if they tell you about abuse, immediately follow through with getting them help.
Teaching your child how to be safe includes basics like teaching them the names of body parts so they have language to share what’s happening, identifying which adults to go to if they’re being abused, the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch”, and how and when to say no. Empower your child to stand up for his safety.
It is only when one can talk about it that healing can begin, and a victim can become a survivor.