Spotting the Warning Signs of Child Sexual Abuse (part 2)
by Ashley Schmutzer, MA, LPC
What can one do if they suspect child sexual abuse? The best course of action is to talk to your child directly. But in doing this, make sure your child feels safe by creating a comfortable and appropriate atmosphere for the discussion.
Also, talk with your child about “keeping secrets.” Sometimes abusers will tell children that sexual abuse is a secret just between them. They may ask the child to promise to keep it secret. They may also threaten the child, saying something horrible will happen if they tell the secret. When you talk to your child, talk about times that it’s okay not to keep a secret, even if they made a promise. Also reassure them that it will be okay if they tell. Make sure you follow through on what you tell your child. Don’t tell them they are safe and it will be okay, and then turn a blind eye to what they tell you. Make sure you give them full attention when they come to you and treat what they tell you with respect. If someone is making your child uncomfortable, make sure they understand they can always talk to you about that person.
Teach your child that saying “no” is okay if someone is touching them in a way that makes them uncomfortable. Help your child understand that some parts of their body are private, and that if anyone tries to touch them in those private areas or wants to look at them, they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible. Also help them understand that it’s not okay for someone else to show them their private parts. Children are often afraid that they will get into trouble if they tell someone not to touch them—reassure them that this it is okay to tell someone not to touch them. Also reassure them that they won’t be in trouble if they tell you about inappropriate touching. A suggestion in explaining this to a child is to use a stuffed bear as a prop. Show the places on the bear where no one is allowed to touch, explaining that if anyone tries to touch them in those same places, they need to tell you or a trusted adult.
Finally, if your child has been sexually abused, it is important to treat what they say with the utmost respect and importance. Make sure your child is now in a safe place, or get them to one as soon as possible. Protect them from the abuser. No matter what, realize that the child is the victim, and the abuser is the perpetrator. Don’t let these lines get blurred, especially if the abuser is someone you love or feel you cannot live without. Studies have shown that a child with support heals much better than a child without support. If you are the non-abusing adult in the child’s life, offer them your full support and follow through. This is not the child’s fault, nor should they, under any circumstances, be blamed for this happening.
Also, if you are mandated to report the abuse, be sure that you follow through. If you are unsure about whether or not you should report the abuse, check with the authorities (such as the police or child protective services in your area), and they can guide you and help you to make that decision. Following through may prevent other children from being harmed by the perpetrator.
For example, DON’T ask the child about possible abuse in front of the person you think may be abusing the child. DON’T let your anger or fear overwhelm the child. Once you can create a safe atmosphere, ask them if anyone has been touching them in ways that don’t feel okay, or that make them feel uncomfortable. Know that sexual abuse can feel good to the victim, so asking your child if someone is hurting them may not get the information that you are looking for.
If the child stated something that caused you to become concerned, ask about that, but be sure not to shame your child. Use “I” statements. For example, “I remember you said this, and I was concerned. Can you tell me what you meant?” vs. “You said this, and it concerned me,” Or, “When you said this, you scared me.” This could cause the child to not be honest out of fear they may hurt you. Instead, make sure that your child knows that they are not in trouble, that you are simply trying to gather more information, and that they are safe in talking with you.
Certain information for this article was obtained from the following sources:
Schmutzer, Andrew J., ed. The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexual Abused. Eugene, OR. Wipf & Stock, 2011.
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network at: http://www.rainn.org; accessed 11/30/11.