One in five women and one in twenty men self report being childhood victims of sexual abuse. Sixty to eighty percent of the abusers are known to the child or their family. As many as half that are family members. Up to twenty percent of the abusers are females. Predators come from all walks of life, but studies overwhelmingly show they are likely to be someone you, the parents or protectors of the children, trust. We tend to think of sexual predators as a man in a trench coat who jumps out of a dark van and snatches a child away. In real life, the predator may approach a child online, they may be a teacher, a relative, a priest, pastor, youth worker, a volunteer at a church or youth facility, or a friend. They may be the parent or care giver of a friend of your child. They are likely to inspire trust, be charismatic or good with people, and probably are not at all going to be the person you expect to be a sexual predator. They can be patient, often grooming a victim over a long period of time.
The abuse may come in the form of a violent attack by a stranger, or it may be a seduction by a beloved family member. It might not even involve touch. It could come in the form of inappropriate comments, indecent exposure, or cyber stalking.
There are many variables in the who, what, when, and why when it comes to victims of childhood sexual predators, but there is one rock solid constant. All the victims will be left with devastating long term effects from the abuse. Childhood sexual abuse is associated with depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, guilt and shame, eating disorders, repression or denial, sexual promiscuity, and relationship problems, in addition to physical injuries from the abuse. Physical injuries can include tearing and bleeding, sexually transmitted diseases, and even internal damage. Research has shown neurological changes related to childhood sexual abuse, changes which can alter brain development.
As a parent, grandparent, or anyone involved with children, there are steps you can take to protect the children you love.
First, recognize that sexual abuse can happen to your child, and that it could involve someone you know. Be a suspicious parent. Do not assume that every scout leader, volunteer, teacher, priest, doctor or relative is safe. Don’t let down your guard for someone just because they “seem” trustworthy, charming, and especially if they have a special interest in your child.
Second, avoid situations where your child is at additional risk. If your child is invited to a sleepover, do you know the parents? If they are involved in school, church, scouting, or other outings, know the adults involved, and who will have access to the children. What are the sleeping arrangements, and what protections have been put in place? You be the adult who asks the tough questions.
Third, do not force contact on your child. Never force them to hug or kiss an adult, and recognize their boundaries. Teach them to have boundaries, teach them in plain terms they can clearly understand, and then always recognize those boundaries. When you speak with your child about adults and “bad touching” or whatever term you use, set aside your discomfort and speak clearly on their level. Let them know they always have the right to refuse touch, and discuss other dangers such as adults who take their clothes off, say bad things, or want to talk about things that they don’t feel comfortable with, including pictures.
Fourth, Teach No, go and tell! Be sure they feel confident in their right to say no to any actions they are not comfortable with. Tell them to go to the nearest adult immediately.
Fifth, trust your instincts when it comes to your child and their safety. If you are unsure about an individual or a situation, don’t put your child at risk. Trust your child’s instincts as well. If they are reluctant to be with an individual, or a part of a group or activity but cannot tell you exactly why, trust their instincts. They may be sensing danger.
Most adults are baffled by how predators are able to get a child to conceal their actions, and feel their child could never be victimized this way. Better to take precautions, because these people are masters at manipulation. If you are a single parent, and especially if there is no strong relationship with their father, a child is at additional risk. The predator may tell a child that he will hurt or kill him, his parents or siblings if he tells. He may also tell a child that their parents will blame them, and children are especially susceptible to this argument if the predator is a family friend, a relative, or other trusted individual like a pastor, teacher, or priest. If the predator is aware of an activity or action the child may not want his parents to be aware of, he could threaten to tell. If the children expect to be yelled at, to be “in trouble” because of family dynamics or troubled relationships, they are less likely to come forward. No matter what your family situation, good or bad, be sure to let your child know that it is okay to go to any adult they trust and tell. Let them know you want them to get help, and that if they feel safer telling a relative, teacher, or pastor, then that is what they should do, and you will not be upset with them. Practice different scenarios with them. We all know the candy rule, but what if an adult tells them Mommy is hurt, or they have a kitten for them? As soon as they are old enough, teach them to be aware of their surroundings, and what to be cautious about. You can find a way to emphasize safety to your child without making them be afraid of the world. Practice builds confidence. Be open, be confident, and be smart. Don’t avoid conversations that might save your child from harm.
Finally, here are behaviors to look for in your child that should tell you something may be wrong. Do not ignore changes in your child’s behavior, or tell yourself it is just “puberty.” If your child exhibits sudden unusual behaviors such as anger, fear, or avoids situations or people, find out if anything is wrong. If your child begins to have nightmares, trouble sleeping or eating, their grades begin to fall, check it out. If they suddenly want to discontinue activities or sports they participate in, find out why. If they change their way of dressing, seem too comfortable with at risk behaviors, or want to spend unexplained time away from home, investigate. Always monitor your child’s online activities, and set limits. Know their friends, and what they are involved in. There is no substitute for having a loving, trusting, and involved relationship with your kids. Letting them know you care, that you are watching out for them, that you are involved, is the best protection they have. Additionally, abusers need to find the least protected children. The more you are there, involved, asking questions, and being suspicious, the more safe your child is from a predator who wants to mitigate his risk. The harder you make it for him to get to your child, to gain their trust, the less likely it is that he will try to victimize your child, or be successful at it.
Take the time to find out about a kind of child abuse called grooming. Many predators use tactics such as online chat rooms to establish a relationship with a victim. Think they pose as a hunky fourteen year old boy who is trying to impress your young daughter? Think again. They just might be posing as a girl who wants to meet her at the skating rink and talks clothes and music with her.
They may use what is known as foot in the door behavior to gain trust with a child or parent. They may offer positive reinforcement to a child, start giving them attention, then simple gifts, money, buy them an ice cream or a baseball. They will know the child’s interests, and very likely know their fears and insecurities. They are very skilled manipulators. A hand on the shoulder will advance to a touch, a stroke. Then it will become a hug and a kiss as the child is desensitized to contact. Conversations may turn sexual in nature. At some point, pornography, pictures or videos, may be introduced. At this point, the child is extremely vulnerable, because they have come to trust the predator, and they fear offending him or her. They may fear a parent’s reaction, or they may feel guilty for liking the person.
As your child gets older, continue to make them aware of how adults or even older children can be a danger, teach them to trust their instincts, arm them with knowledge. You probably keep yourself current on drug fads, what the latest “high” is. You should feel just as confident in keeping your child sexually safe. If you are a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or a friend, stay aware. These precious children are also in your care, and it may be one of your friends who is a danger to the child. There can never be too many people looking out for our kids.
Finally, lets talk worst case scenario. If your child has been victimized, you must take immediate steps to protect and help them. Put aside yourself, and your rage, your shame, your guilt, and make a vow to act in the child’s best interest. Notify the authorities, get medical assistance, and especially, find therapy for your child. Pretending it didn’t happen is not an option that will be in your child’s best interest. Telling yourself it is better for them if no one finds out is an insidious lie, to yourself and to them. They will feel guilty and ashamed, and be denied help when it can most benefit them. Do not lose time in getting them the help they need to overcome what has happened before they take on a lifetime of pain and dangerous behavior. This will not go away just because you want it to. It will get worse. Do not protect a family member or friend. If the child is not old enough to feel the pain of your betrayal now, the day will come when he or she will know that you chose someone else over him. Children have a very developed sense of justice and right and wrong, and they know that evil should be punished. They also will feel empowered that the predator has been stopped and will never hurt another child. If you deny them that, you will be affecting their feelings of safety, and their ability to heal, as well as guilt they will feel for being made to be silent when they know this adult is hurting other children. You may not know it, you may not believe it, but they do. Never, ever negotiate with a predator. If someone you know has hurt your child, you want to believe them when they swear to you it will never happen again. Do not put yourself in this situation. Call the authorities. Finally, be prepared for a long road. Know that you will not always be perfect, and you will have bad days and good as you help your child deal with the daily trials they will face. Don’t ever give up, and keep your family looking at that light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope, and sometimes just knowing that is what you have to cling to.
If you are the victim of past sexual abuse, and you have never had treatment for that abuse, there is hope. Consider asking someone you trust, such as a family doctor, or your pastor, for help finding a competent therapist. This is not one size fits all. Once you decide to seek help, know that just as you may not like the first church you go to, or the doctor you choose from the yellow pages, so it may be with a mental health professional. Find the person and treatment that is right for you. You may be unable to fix your problems all at once, but train yourself to take baby steps. If the thought of making an appointment with a therapist is overwhelming to you, do some research online first. Talk to a trusted spouse or friend. Perhaps consider a non traditional therapy, such as on line or skype therapy. Take one small step at a time. You do not have to accept your pain. There is hope. Find your way out of the prison of your past. I believe you will find many caring people, ready to help you deal with your problems.
One final note on the statistics quoted in this post. As you can imagine, sexual abuse is often not reported, and the statistics available vary from one source to another, even in government reports. I used a range representative of the studies and reports I found to be most credible, as well as figures I obtained from a practicing clinician, a doctor who specializes in treating victims of sexual abuse.