What would you do if your child arrived home in tears and told you that someone had touched her inappropriately or worse yet, had him perform a sexual act? Would you know what to do? Would you know what to say?
As parents, we take every precaution to ensure the safety of our children: we teach them to look both ways before crossing the street, we talk to them about germs and remind them to wash their hands, we warn them against talking to strangers. But when it comes to sexual abuse, we often think it could never happen to our child, or that it couldn't possibly be going on in our community -- because if it were, we would know, wouldn't we? We often get tongue-tied, or don't know where to start.
Unfortunately, abuse is occurring quietly in many communities and in many different settings. And even more alarming when it comes to sexual abuse, the most common perpetrator is someone the child knows and trusts. An important step in combating abuse is empowering your children with the knowledge to recognize the signs of abuse, as well as how to get help for themselves or a friend, and how and when to report abuse.
The thought of speaking to a child about sexual abuse leaves many parents feeling uneasy or nervous, but you are not alone. Thousands of parents and caregivers across Canada feel the same way. Even professionals who work directly with young people may feel inadequately prepared to talk about the issue, let alone recognize the signs of abuse or handle a heart-wrenching disclosure.
What should you say to your child about sexual abuse? How should you start the conversation? What questions should you ask? And what might your child ask you? For children and youth, talking about sexual abuse may be strange, uncomfortable, and anxiety- provoking. Some children may giggle or try to change the subject, but acknowledging that this is a normal reaction to an unfamiliar, yet important topic, and that you understand the way it makes them feel to discuss it, may help you both.
One way to open the discussion is to say, “You know, we need to talk about something really important. It might make you feel embarrassed or shy, and that's okay, but we need to talk about sexual abuse so that you will know what it is, where to get help, and how to help a friend. Unfortunately, there are many kids who are being sexually abused, and most often they feel so alone, as if there is no one to help them. That is why it is important that kids like you know you are not alone and that there is help available.”
It's important to explain exactly what sexual abuse is to your child. Sexual abuse is when an adult, adolescent or older child uses a younger child for his or her own sexual stimulation or gratification. It can involve everything from showing them pornography, making sexual comments, touching them in sexual areas or forcing them to touch another's sexual areas. There is a range of contact and non-contact ways that sexual abuse may occur.
Remember that many children and youth are persuaded to partake in sexual abuse; this does not mean that they are responsible for it. Sexual offenders are skilled at making their victims feel responsible. Many groom the children for a long period of time, developing a close, trusting relationship in order to manipulate the child more skilfully. Children and youth are the innocent victims and are never at fault for sexual abuse.
If and when a young person finally gains the strength and courage to tell an adult, it is of utmost importance that the adult knows what to look for, how to respond and what action to take. Children who have experienced sexual abuse may demonstrate some behavioural and social changes: their eating or sleeping habits may be different; they may no longer enjoy their extra curricular activities; changes may occur in their relationships; they could become more sexualized, provocative, or change their grooming routines.
Victims of sexual abuse often hide their feelings, blame themselves, keep the secret, and rationalize the abuse by telling themselves it was not that bad, or it won't happen again. Many seek attention through aggressive or self-destructive sexual behaviour, while others withdraw or try to escape by using drugs or running away. Sadly, some victims attempt or commit suicide.
Children need to know that almost always, sexual offenders are people that the victim trusts and even loves. They may be parents, siblings, other relatives, teachers, coaches, clergy, babysitters, neighbours, friends or strangers. No matter who approaches them, it is important to always tell them to trust their tummies - also known as their intuition. If anyone is doing something that makes them feel strange or uncomfortable, they should tell them to stop, leave the situation and tell someone they trust.
Keeping the secret of abuse allows the abuse to continue, and the victim continues to be hurt. It is every person's duty to report any suspected abuse (you don't have to be able to prove it - investigating is the job of the authorities!) as that is the only way the cycle of abuse will ever end. If a child or youth comes to you to disclose any form of abuse, or if your child's friend talks to them, these are the important steps for you to take to make sure they are HEARD:
1. HEAR: Listen; do not promise not to tell -- no secrets!
2. EMPATHIZE/ENCOURAGE: "You are doing the right thing by telling me. I will make sure you get help."
3. AFFIRM THE CHILD: "I believe you. It takes a lot of courage to tell someone."
4. REPORT: Encourage your friend to talk with an adult he or she trusts. Contact your local child welfare agency or the police. The Kids Help Phone is also a resource that allows kids to speak with an adult, ask difficult questions, and get more information: Kid's Help Phone 1-800-668-6868.
5. DOCUMENT: Write down the facts of what was said, when the disclosure was made, and any identifying information about the child to share with the authorities (i.e. name, address, siblings, date of birth).
People often turn a blind eye to child abuse, not because they don't care, but because they're uncomfortable, or unsure of what to do. If a young person tells you that they are being harmed, listen to them, believe them, and help them. In addition, know how and when to report abuse to the proper authorities. Our worst nightmares don't have to come true. The Canadian Red Cross can provide you with more information about helping children and youth overcome abuse and what programs are offered in communities across Canada to prevent violence and abuse. Please visit our RespectED: Violence and Abuse Prevention web pages at www.redcross.ca/RespectED
Child abuse can be prevented. Become a force for change in your community.
Amy Woods, BSW is a Provincial Coordinator for RespectED: Violence and Abuse Prevention at the Canadian Red Cross. With over 10 years of experience in children's mental health, at-risk populations, and persons with disabilities, Amy has been instrumental in designing and implementing programs to marginalized groups across Ontario. She has provided training throughout the education and legal systems, for community agencies and at conferences. Amy also provides training on the subjects of child abuse prevention, bullying and harassment.