- 1 “A child that I know has disclosed sexual abuse to me.”
- 2 “I suspect that a child is being abused, what should I do?”
There are some very important steps to take if a child discloses sexual abuse, along with ensuring the child’s privacy, both during and following a disclosure:
- remain calm and don’t overreact in the child’s presence.
- believe the child.
- reassure the child.
- listen to the child.
- call for assistance immediately. You are not alone…
Although child sexual abuse is talked about a great deal more than it was, say fifteen years ago, many people still would like to believe that this problem does not exist in our society.
Even though more and more child victims, and adults who were abused as children, are coming forward; a large number of victims still never report these crimes to police. Child abuse is a well hidden, well protected and deeply rooted problem in our society. As a result, most children suffer quietly, and most abusers go on victimizing more children.
Because so many children are afraid to come forward, the manner in which you react to a child who does disclose sexual abuse takes on immense importance. How we, as parents or guardians, respond to the child will help to determine how he (or she) will handle and cope with the incident(s).
In addition, how we respond, as a society, may also give other children the courage to come forward. This booklet is designed to not only provide parents with a better understanding of child sexual abuse, but also to prepare and assist parents in the event of a child’s disclosure.
What Is Child Sexual Abuse?
There are two general categories of sexual abuse: intrafamilial sexual abuse (involves an abuser from the child’s family), and extrafamilial sexual abuse (involves an abuser from outside the family, such as strangers, teachers, and friends). Whether the abuser is a parent, a friend or a stranger, sexual abuse is never only ‘sexual’ abuse – it is emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, and an abuse of power.
Child sexual abuse refers to the use of a child by an adult for sexual purposes and includes any form of direct or indirect sexual contact with a young person by an adult, an older child, or a sibling who is more mature. The sexual abuse of children and young people can occur as a single incident or inappropriate sexual behaviour that happens over a period of time. Some of the more common types of sexual abuse are:
- exposing genitals to a child;
- inviting a child to touch the person in a sexual manner;
- vaginal, oral or anal penetration;
- enticing a child to engage in sexual activity;
- coercing a child into sexual relations with someone else;
- sexual exploitation through child pornography; and
- exposure to pornography.
Can A Child Consent To These Acts?
Sexual activity without consent is always a crime regardless of the age of the individuals. Consent is not even at question for children less than 12 years of age. They cannot legally give their consent for sexual acts. Children, ages 12 to 14 can give their consent only if their partner is less than two years older than they are, and children between 14 and 18 cannot consent to a person who holds a position of trust or authority over them.
It is not a defence to this crime for the accused to say that he or she did not know the child’s age. He or she must have taken all the reasonable steps to learn the correct age of the child. For children who are legally able to consent to sexual activities, the accused is required to have taken reasonable steps to ascertain the victim’s consent, and consent cannot be assumed based on the victim’s silence.
“My child has told me that he (or she) is being sexually abused.”
One of the most difficult things parents can hear is that their child has been sexually abused. Should your child disclose sexual abuse you must be prepared to help the child. Confusion, guilt, and anger are normal parental reactions. However, as an adult and a parent, you must control your personal feelings and focus all your energy on assisting your child in recovering from the abuse. The following guidelines will assist you to deal with such a situation in an appropriate manner. Remember, (1) your reaction to the allegations will have a profound effect on the child and (2) the child is the most important piece of the equation, and the child’s needs must come first.
“A child that I know has disclosed sexual abuse to me.”
If you are not the child’s parent…
If you are not the child’s parent and a child discloses any kind of abuse to you – you are under a legal obligation to report this to the police. Although your first reaction may be to pretend not to hear it, or pass your concerns along to the parents, this is not the appropriate action. The child is putting his or her trust in you as an adult. Help the child. Call the police and child protective services immediately.
It is also not appropriate to pass the complaint along to, for example, your boss or superior. If a child discloses abuse to you, you must call the police. This is the law.
“I suspect that a child is being abused, what should I do?”
Even if a child does not disclose sexual abuse to you, but you suspect that a child is being abused in any way – you must report this to police.
If you remain unsure as to whether a child has been sexually abused, do not hesitate to contact a police officer – they are properly trained to assess these situations.
Steps To Take When A Child Discloses Sexual Abuse
If a child does disclose that he (or she) has been a victim of sexual abuse, it is your job to stay calm and help the child through this difficult time. Here are some points to remember when you deal with a child’s disclosure:
- Remember that it is never the child’s fault.
First and foremost, you should try not to overreact to the child’s allegations. Try not to show any anger, and do not criticize the child. Remember that children may be very frightened that the parent will be angry at them, or stop loving them. It is never appropriate to blame the child for the abuse, or question his or her motive for not telling you sooner. If you receive a disclosure, you will probably be shocked and overwhelmed. For the child’s sake, try to stay calm. Children can be re-traumatized if adults lose control of their emotions in response to allegations of sexual abuse.
- Believe the child – children do not ‘make up stories like this’.
Always believe a child who discloses abuse to you. Children rarely lie about such things, and an adult’s trust will be an essential part of a child’s recovery. Explain to the child that he or she has done nothing wrong. Assure the child that telling what happened is the right thing to do and that you will protect the child from future harm. Show signs of affection and express your love and confidence with words and gestures. Avoid sentences starting with ‘why’, such as ‘Why didn’t you tell me this before?’ Give the child positive messages such as ‘I’m proud of you for being so brave and telling me this’. The child will need positive reinforcement and love from the person they disclose the abuse to.
- Listen and support the child.
Listen closely and carefully to the child and explain to the child that he or she has done nothing wrong. Most children have feelings of guilt and responsibility and assume that they are to blame for what happened. Remember that the parent’s job is to support the child, not to judge. Your belief and trust in your child as well as the manner in which you react to a disclosure can keep open lines of communication with the child. In the future it will be vitally important that the child believe that you are sympathetic, understanding, in control, supportive, trustworthy and optimistic so that the child will be comfortable in making further disclosures and most important, comfortable in discussing his (or her) feelings in the future.
- Call the police or child protective services.
Immediately following any disclosure you must contact both your local police department and a social worker at the nearest government Social Services office. Sometimes it may take a little while for the police or a social worker to return your call. Be persistent. Although they are usually busy, they will respond as soon as they can. While you may wish to investigate the child’s allegations or even confront the accused, it is extremely important that you do not. Both the police and personnel from Child Services in your area have experts to deal with matters of child abuse and you need to trust their abilities rather than taking the matter into your own hands. Again, you should not contact any other person until you have spoken with both the police and a social worker.
Understanding Child Sexual Abuse
It is essential that everyone understands that children rarely lie about being sexually abused. One of the reasons that critics do not believe children when they make allegations of sexual abuse is because many children do not tell anyone about the abuse for long periods of time, sometimes years.
The reasons behind this are really not very difficult to understand. Both adults and children may be reluctant to report sexual abuse for many reasons. Their reluctance may be related to the historical norm of keeping such behaviour secret because of the sense of shame associated with it. Many children are simply terrified that the abuser will hurt them, or their family. Others feel guilty about the abuse, blaming themselves (as the offender often tells them it is their fault).
Young children who are abused by people they know and trust may feel that the abuser would never do anything to hurt them and may fear that they will lose the love of someone special to them if they ‘tell on them’. The fear that no one will believe them is another explanation for secrecy. Finally, the fact that the victims are young, and dependent upon adults can affect their decision to tell someone.
All Children Lie… Don’t They?
Study after study has proven that it is rare for a child to lie about being sexually abused. Comments such as ‘we all know that children lie’ are absurd. In the few recorded cases in which children appear to have made false allegations, it has usually been the result of manipulation by an adult.
When children disclose allegations that someone has sexually abused them, it is more than likely true. Therefore, it is important for children to be believed. Like any victim, children are not to blame for being sexually abused, the only person responsible is the abuser.
It is often difficult for parents to believe a child when child sexual abuse is reported, especially when the offender is someone known to the family, or a part of it. Lapses in memories or inaccuracies (wrong dates or places) should not be interpreted as a lie. Children have trouble remembering details. Offenders who hold positions of trust in a community can often abuse children for years without being caught because no one believes the children or they want to avoid a scandal. Many children say they wish they had been physically abused so that bruises and cuts would have been visible and people would have been forced to ask where they had come from. Child victims who report sexual abuse have much to lose – they risk being disbelieved by their loved ones, being isolated in the community, the possible anger of the abuser, and losing their family. There is little reason for a child to lie.
Signs to Watch For
Many children are simply too afraid to disclose sexual abuse. As a result it will likely go unreported and unnoticed. If you, as a parent or guardian, suspect sexual abuse, the best way to respond is simply to be attentive to the child’s behaviour. Listen carefully to what your child says. Show your concern by asking if anything is the matter, but you should not press for an answer. Let your child know that you are ready to listen at any time.
Often, when children have a problem or are upset about something, they may show it by acting out of character. While the following changes in a child’s behaviour may indicate that a child has been sexually abused, one should not take any of them as a sure sign of abuse:
- anxiety, sadness, and anger;
- withdrawal, isolating herself or himself from others;
- self-destructive behaviours such as running away, hurting others, taking drugs or alcohol, or suicidal thoughts;
- low self-esteem/depression;
- over compliance;
- aggression problems;
- change in school performance;
- nightmares, problems sleeping; bed wetting;
- unable to trust people;
- avoidance of intimate relationships;
- avoidance of a particular person;
- unexplainable knowledge of information relating to sex; inappropriate sexual play; and
- avoidance of physical contact.
There may, or may not, be physical effects of the abuse. Some of the more common physical symptoms are: bruises, cuts, irritation around the mouth, genitals or anus, etc. It cannot be said often enough that lack of physical symptoms does not mean that there was no abuse. In addition, very young children may not really understand what has gone on, and that these actions against them are wrong. Therefore, they may not seem very traumatized at the time, but this should not be interpreted as an indicator that no abuse has taken place.
Consider the need for counselling or therapy for the child as well as for yourself. To ignore the incident, to sweep it under the carpet, or to pretend that it did not happen is not going to help the child or yourself deal with the abuse. On the contrary, pretending it did not happen will worsen the problem for many years to come.
In deciding what counsellor to use, look for someone who is experienced in cases of sexual abuse. Find a counsellor you are comfortable with and don’t be afraid to change counsellors if it is not working out. The Children’s Aid Society (CAS), community victim groups, and women’s organizations are all possible sources that will direct you to the best counselling available.
Treatment usually focuses on empowering victims and helping them realize that the abuse was not their fault. This will hopefully relieve the guilt that most victims feel. Group therapy is a common method of treatment for teenagers and adults. It offers the victims the chance to discuss their problems with people who have experienced similar abuse, and allows an atmosphere where blame does not exist. Such treatment also can help to relieve feelings of isolation.
Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse
There are things that a parent can tell a child that may lessen the risk of being sexually abused. Simply warning your children “not to talk to strangers” is not good enough considering the fact that children are in more danger of being abused by someone they know. One of the first things a parent should do is to ensure that their children know that they can talk to the parent about anything, and that the parent will believe them.
Parents should also teach their children about good and bad touches. Children should be taught that it is not appropriate to be touched in their private parts, and if they are, they should tell the parent right away. Children can be best protected by giving them the knowledge and skills necessary for their safety and well-being, and by creating in our families and communities an atmosphere in which they feel safe enough to come forward if they are mistreated or abused. Prevention education is particularly important for children who have been sexually abused, as they are at higher risk of re-victimization than children who have not been sexually assaulted.
The problem of child sexual abuse is not going to disappear. It has been around forever, and if we have learned anything, it is that ignoring it will not help the situation. Victims need to be believed and supported when they disclose reports of abuse.
Children must be our first priority. Children who have been abused must feel that they can confide in someone and that they will be believed. If they do not, the majority of victims will continue to remain silent. Children represent our future, and they have a right to expect to grow up happy and safe.
Feedback about our Child Protection Materials is greatly appreciated.
Please vofv(at)victimsofviolence(dot)on.ca if you have any comments, or to report errors or omissions.