Let’s Talk About Child Sexual Abuse Prevention: From Someone Who Was Abused As a Child
Child sexual abuse can be one of the toughest topics to talk about, but it’s crucial we open up the conversation and create awareness. The statistics are terrifying. Every 92 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every 9 minutes, that victim is a child. Meanwhile, only 5 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. (RAINN) More than 65,000 children were sexually abused in 2016, and the actual number is probably much, much higher. (American Society for the Positive Care of Children).
The media and public figures do a good job of bringing attention to child sexual abuse issues nationally, but as a society, there’s so much more we need to do. We need to understand how the abusers influence their victims. We need to understand what the victims emotionally experience. We need to know how to prevent and treat child sexual abuse. We need to talk to young children about what’s appropriate and what’s not, and then we need to listen. Because more likely than not, the majority of children are abused by someone they know…and that’s what happened to me.
I am a survivor of more than a decade of childhood sexual abuse by my uncle, beginning at age 2. Therefore I can relate to the amount of shame that comes with abuse happening at such a young and vulnerable age. This is referred to as developmental trauma, where trauma happens during a time of crucial brain development. I felt powerless and always had a deep-felt sense that something was truly wrong with me growing up. The viscerally felt shame made me struggle with my confidence, my attachment with family members, and thus, caused me to feel alienated from classmates and family members, and caused me to become easily re-traumatized. The continual cycle of trauma perpetuated my narrative and negative beliefs about myself and damaged my self-esteem.
The most common negative beliefs from childhood sexual abuse are also ones I experienced:
- “I’m bad.”
- “There’s something wrong with me.”
- “It’s all my fault.”
Logically it doesn’t make sense, but these were real and extremely damaging thoughts I believed were true down to my core. I was defective. Unlovable. Damaged. Gross. Used up. As I got older, my self-worth was tied to my physical appearance (sex appeal) and nothing else.
I need to mention that I have amazing parents and a loving family. Everything appeared normal to them. The reality was, my uncle sexually abused me from the age of about 2 years old all the way through middle school – my parents and family had no idea. He did so behind their backs, when they trusted him to be around me and take care of me when my dad was sick with Leukemia. In general, parents work really hard at protecting their children from “outside” abusers and strangers, but should also be more observant and diligent about the people already in their children’s lives – people they explicitly trust. Of sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93% of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator. (RAINN)
WHY CHILDREN DON’T TELL
There are numerous reasons why children say nothing. Much of the time, as indicated in the negative beliefs above, they assume responsibility for the abuse. They may honestly not know that something inappropriate has happened, especially if they are of a younger age. There may be fear of not being believed or what consequences may come about after the event. The child may also lack the words to be able to describe the abuse. Or, maybe they tried to tell a friend, sibling or young cousin, who also does not know what to think / do and they sweep it under the rug. Other reasons for not disclosing could include intimidation or fear of threats from the abuser such as, “don’t say anything or you’ll be in trouble” or, “I’ll tell your mommy you did X if you say anything” or “this is our little secret and if you tell I won’t bring you that toy you want next time.” This manipulation and ‘grooming’ that goes with ongoing abuse are utterly horrifying and despicable beyond words. It produces even more fear, shame, embarrassment, and guilt within the victim.
Even if the child tries to vocalize what is happening, sometimes, and unfortunately, parents choose not to believe it or they brush it off. They may convince themselves the child doesn’t really know what they are saying. However, for the most part, the reasons are mainly rooted in denial and fear: fear of shame being brought on the family. Fear of the family being torn apart. Fear of being alone. Fear of their partner or family member going to jail. Fear of the financial implications. What’s worse, is that when there is one child affected, there are always more. Just like Larry Nassar and the Olympian athletes. Just like my uncle and the other young victims (who I won’t name to protect their privacy).
WHAT WE NEED TO DO – AS PARENTS / CARETAKERS
This type of abuse often happens across generations. Usually the parents were also abused or sexually abused as children, which makes them more blind to warning signs and prevention for their own children.
- Therefore, the first step is to heal yourself in order to stop this generational family pattern from continuing. Today, I’m a licensed psychotherapist and I’ve spent many, many years on my own self-work and self-healing. Part of that healing is owning my story, sharing with others and educating parents so hopefully, it helps just one more child. This also helps ensure that this will not ever happen to my own future children.
I encourage anyone who has ever been abused, neglected, or sexually abused to dive deep into your own healing. Seek out professional help so you can truly process, desensitize and nurture the child part of you that was / is so broken and damaged. We must forgive, understand, nurture, empathize with and love that child inside of us in order to fully heal. We must give him or her the things he / she needed as a child. We must tell him / her the things he / she needed to hear as a child. Then we can eventually get to the place of forgiving our own parents and abuser (not for their sake, but for ourselves and our own healing and sanity).
2. The second step is awareness and education. You must complete the first step for you to be fully aware, otherwise you may ignore (sweep under the rug) or be blind to important red flags and warning signs. Or possibly even triggered, which again, can cause you to dissociate and not be fully present to what’s going on. It is vitally important to know how to protect your children, to know the warning signs of someone who potentially could harm your children, and to understand the warning signs of sexual abuse while it occurs. PLEASE read and share this with family and friends. Have the uncomfortable talks with your spouse, family members and your kids.
TELLING SIGNS OF A CHILD PREDATOR
Predators are hidden in plain sight – they can be an older sibling, family member, relative, colleague or friend. In fact, 90% of the time, a predator is someone who has a relationship to the victim and the family.
You may be thinking, ‘that won’t happen to me or my child, that can’t happen to our family.’ But it can. Statistics are frightening – One in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. (RAINN) This statistic only comes from the number of reported incidents, not the actual number of events. I’d expect this number to be much higher if all cases were in fact, reported. The best thing you can do is to be prepared to spot the red flags BEFORE something happens. Predators have child grooming techniques you can learn to spot. Learn more about statistics here.
A CHILD PREDATOR GAINS TIME WITH CHILDREN
- They spend excessive time at your home and with you and your family. This includes a sibling, relative, family friend, neighbor, colleague, cousin, a coach or even a teacher who has taken a special interest in one particular child.
- They will work very hard to arrange for alone time with your child. They are not doing you a favor or helping out of the goodness of their heart. Alone time is a seized opportunity.
WHAT DOES A CHILD MOLESTER LOOK FOR?
- Vulnerability. A child that may be in need of extra attention, affection or who may be more of a loner and in need of friendship or guidance. This child may lack confidence or seem shy.
- Opportunities. Watch your surroundings and gatherings. Normal adults will chit chat with children for a few minutes and then turn their attention to adult conversations but if a grown-up prefers to spend time with the kids playing – this is a red flag.
SIGNS OF A CHILD PREDATOR: HOW TO IDENTIFY GROOMING BEHAVIOR
A child predator is an expert at grooming children and their parents by gaining trust, using gifts, and giving attention. These are the first warning signs of a predator.
- What do kids love more than toys and gifts? A predator is an expert at finding the soft spot of a child because they work especially hard to relate to kids and speak their language. If someone is gifting items to your child that you may not be able to afford, or the item seems excessive – this is a major warning sign.
- A predator will prep your child – they’ll test the waters to make sure your child can keep secrets.
THE BEST WAYS TO PROTECT YOUR CHILD FROM SEXUAL ABUSE
I would like to encourage parents, caregivers, coaches, and teachers to review the following tips and red flags to protect children from sexual abuse. Olympic champion and sexual abuse survivor, Aly Raisman, has teamed up with KidSafe to educate children about the warning signs of a predator.
These tips and red flags are directly from the KidSafe Foundation, a foundation dedicated to “working together to keep kids safe”, as well as from my personal experience.
- Have you been abused, sexually abused or neglected as a child? As we discussed above, this is the first risk factor for your own child being abused, especially if you haven’t healed or fully worked through the trauma. Do the self-work. Go to therapy. Try EMDR treatment. Find a support group. Be kind and compassionate towards yourself. Dive into your own healing ASAP, preferably before you have children or while your children are young.
- No secrets, ever. If secrets are ever ok, the line has been blurred and a child will continue to keep secrets between another adult and themselves. A predator will test this out to see how “safe” a child is to their game plan.
- Open communication. Start discussing with your children about their bodies, boundaries, safe and unsafe touches and secrets at a young age, around 4 years old. Tell your children they can talk with you about anything, and you will not be uncomfortable with what they say.
- Be a visible parent. How involved are you in your child’s daily life? Are you present? Or is someone else helping you a lot and doing you “favors”?
- Set clear & visible boundaries for your family. Set clear family guidelines for personal privacy and behavior and discuss these boundaries with all family members. Discuss these boundaries / guidelines with any other adults who spends time around or supervises your children. (e.g., if a child does not want to hug or kiss someone hello or goodbye, then he / she can shake hands instead.) Safety Rules are important to begin talking about at a young age.
- Let your child set boundaries of their own. Let children know that if they are not comfortable being around a particular adult or older child, then you or another adult will let that person know this. (e.g., tell him or her that you don’t want your child to sit on his/her lap.) As a child matures, boundaries may need to change (e.g., knock on the door before entering the room of an adolescent, etc.)
- Empower children that their bodies are special and belong to them, and that they have a voice and can say “NO” if something doesn’t feel right or is uncomfortable.
- Trust your gut. You should fully trust the people around your children. If your “gut” or intuition is telling you something isn’t right, listen to it! You can also start to teach your children to do the same.
- Listen and remain “poker-faced” no matter what they say so communication does not break down. If you act scared or shocked or angry, they may feel unsafe to talk to you.
- Do NOT use the terms “good touch” or “bad touch” – it is too confusing as sexual abuse can feel good. Use “safe touch” and “unsafe touch”.
- Do not hesitate to report abuse. Reporting is crucial and adults need to trust their instincts and always err on the side of protecting children, instead of protecting or helping the abuser. Beware of any tendencies you have of conflict avoidance.
- Disclosure – always believe your children if they tell you they were abused (they will often tell indirectly). It is so rare for children to lie about abuse, and your belief can make them feel powerful and give them strength to start their path to healing.
- Tell your children it is never, ever their fault if they are abused. It is ALWAYS the abuser’s fault.
- Counseling immediately is important. Not just for the survivor but for the whole family. Click here for resources.
- Don’t treat survivors as victims and become overprotective of them. It is common for parents to want to put their child in a bubble when they have been hurt, but this can make a child feel more alienated than they already feel.
RED FLAGS: PHYSICAL / EMOTIONAL SIGNS OF SEXUAL ABUSE
- Injury to the genital area
- Redness or rash in genital or anal area
- Problems walking or sitting
- Torn or bloody clothing
- Genital odors or itching
- Genital infections or venereal disease
- Picking skin
- Acting out sexually (such as playing a more intimate version of “doctor”)
- Becoming extremely angry, sad (depressed), scared (anxious), shy or sensitive all of a sudden. It may seem like part of childhood and growing up, bullying, or personality, but that isn’t always the case (as it was with me – I was extremely angry, depressed, and even more shy and quiet all of a sudden in elementary school).
- Not wanting to be touched all of a sudden (such as hugs, comfort, etc.) This was the case with me as well, in elementary school. It was a sudden shift.
- Isolation. Wanting to be alone more often, which again, may seem like all of a sudden.
To report child abuse: If you suspect that a child is being abused, report it to your state child abuse hotline or call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD). If you think that a child is in immediate danger of child abuse or neglect, you should call 911.
Below is a video I created where I briefly share my experience of childhood sexual abuse.
Now I would love to hear from you.
Have you and/or your child experienced childhood sexual abuse? Did you report it? Have you gotten help? Do you have support? Where are you at now in your healing journey? How are you handling the shame? What would you say to your younger self? What advice would you give to others? Let me know in the comments below and I look forward to connecting and going deeper with you. Sending much love, self-care, and gratitude.