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Thread: Talking to your child about sexual abuse

  1. #1

    Talking to your child about sexual abuse

    Talking to Your Child About Sexual Abuse
    October 15, 2004, KidsHealth.org

    Childhood should be about sweetness and light, not gloom and doom. So why broach the subject of something as awful as sexual abuse with your child? Why bring it up if it may never happen? Is it really necessary to make such a big deal about it?

    You bet it is, for these reasons and more:
    • Without prior knowledge of what it is and how to recognize it, young children may not recognize their victimization as sexual abuse.
    • Kids often keep quiet about the abuse because they think disclosure will bring consequences even worse than being victimized again.
    • Children often get the feeling that something they did caused the abuse, and therefore think that something must be wrong with them or that it's their fault.
    An estimated one out of five women and one out of 10 men report having been sexually abused in childhood, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). So if you think your child's safe or immune, think again. In fact, you owe it to your child - whether toddler or teen - to talk about the subject and make sure she's informed.

    What Is Sexual Abuse?
    When a child is sexually abused, she can be assaulted (or physically harmed) or exploited, which involves verbal or emotional abuse. The abuser, usually an adult or older child whom the child knows, will force, trick, bribe, threaten, or pressure her into sexual activity. Such forms of child abuse include:
    • sexual touching and fondling of a child
    • having the child touch the abuser's genitals or perform oral sexual acts on the abuser
    • forced or unforced vaginal or anal sexual intercourse with a child
    • exposure to adult sexual activity or pornographic movies or photos
    • having a child pose, undress, or perform in a sexual manner
    • spying on a child while she's in a bathroom or bedroom
    Because most children are trusting and because they usually know the abuser, physical force is rarely needed. And children are often taught to obey their elders, a lesson that perpetrators can use to their advantage.

    Effects of Sexual Abuse on Children
    Because physical evidence of sexual abuse is often absent or difficult to detect, concerned adults should be aware of unusual changes in behavior. A normally talkative child may become quiet and withdrawn, or a reticent child may suddenly exhibit promiscuous or sexually inappropriate behavior. A well- adjusted child may suddenly withdraw from those closest to her or become fearful of being with a particular person (who may be the abuser). A child who is being abused may even begin to abuse other children.

    Children who have been sexually abused may also:
    • copy adult sexual behavior
    • insist on sexual play with other children, toys, pets, or themselves
    • display sexual knowledge beyond what's normal for their age or maturity level
    • have unexplained pain, swelling, or bleeding around the genitals or mouth
    • have urinary tract infections or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
    Sexual abuse has been termed the "silent problem" because children often are either afraid to tell, having been threatened by the abuser to keep quiet, or are too young or too ashamed to put what has happened into words. They may be confused by the feelings that accompany the abuse, and they may blame themselves for it. Abuse also may betray their sense of trust, because it often involves telling on a loved one. If they can't tell their secret to those they trust, they may begin to think that they can't trust anyone and learn to repress their feelings. If they close themselves off, they may begin to feel helpless, which can have long-lasting effects on their future relationships, emotional health, and attainment of educational and career goals.

    Another problem is that at first, particularly if the abuser is a loved one, some children may like the extra attention shown to them because it makes them feel special. And some children may feel guilty that they didn't initially resist. When they do want out, they may feel unable to act because they didn't say no at first. The child may also fear getting the abuser into trouble, or damaging or severing her relationship with an abusing loved one if she tells or resists - concerns that perpetrators often play upon to continue their control of the situation.

    How Can I Talk to My Child?
    As frightening as it may be, the reality is that you can never completely protect your child from sexual abuse. However, you can teach her about it so that she'll be aware of what it is and how to protect herself against it.

    In a calm and caring manner, you'll want to give your child age-appropriate information to ensure her safety and well-being. Before you get to specifics, though, tell your child that she's loved, valued, and deserves to be safe. Also, never tell her to "do anything an adult tells you to do."

    When you're sure she understands, follow these guidelines with your child's level of understanding and maturity in mind.

    When talking to a preschooler:
    • teach the proper names for body parts
    • tell her that her body belongs to her and that no one has the right to touch her private parts or to hurt her in any way
    • tell her that this applies to everyone she knows and not just strangers
    • make sure she knows it's OK to say no to anything that makes her feel uncomfortable, even if the request is from a relative or friend
    • tell her to tell to you if any adult asks her to keep a secret
    When talking to grade-schoolers:
    • explain that some adults have problems, and if something feels wrong, it probably is
    • explain that some adults are confused about sex and sometimes they try to kiss, touch, or hug children in a way that makes kids feel uncomfortable
    • tell them to come to you even if they're afraid of what may happen, if it seems easier to try to forget about it, or if someone has threatened them not to tell
    • tell them you will believe them and protect them if they tell you about abuse and that you will never blame or be angry with them for doing so
    • give straightforward answers if they ask about sex
    • stress personal safety and encourage them to get away from the abuser as quickly and safely as possible
    When talking to teenagers:
    • explain that sexual violence is any sexual act that breaks a person's trust or threatens his or her safety
    • discuss rape, date/acquaintance rape, sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy
    • tell them that nobody has the right to force them to do any act that they consider sexual (kissing, hugging, any contact with the breasts or genitals, sexual intercourse, etc.)
    • reiterate the importance of keeping their bodies safe, saying no, and telling an adult if something wrong or something that felt wrong has happened
    Experts caution against using the "good touch-bad touch" explanation because young children tend to think of a "bad touch" as one that causes physical pain or involves hitting. Many types of sexual contact are not painful, do not cause injury, and may even "feel good" to the child. So instead, tell your child exactly what an "OK" touch might be - a pat on the back, a rub on the head, a high five, and so on. Ask your child to name some touches and let them know whether they're OK.

    Here's something else to consider. When grandparents and other relatives come for a visit, hugs and kisses are expected. But many children don't want to get close right away - or at any point during the visit - and they shouldn't be forced to. This is another kind of violation of a child's private space. Tell your child that he or she doesn't have to hug or kiss anyone, even relatives, if he or she doesn't want to. Explain it to loved ones, too, and suggest that they break the ice by playing with your child first. That way, a hug may happen on its own, and the spontaneity can make it that much more special.

    I Think My Child Is Being Abused - What Should I Do?
    Keeping calm is key. When parents overact, kids may think they're angry at them instead of at what's happened to them.

    Realize that talking about the abuse can be extremely difficult if a child has been sworn to secrecy. You may get an inkling from some vague statements in which the child hints about the abuse, or confides in a friend.

    If you find out that your child is being abused, here's what you can do to help immediately:
    • Believe him or her. In most cases, kids do not lie about sexual abuse.
    • Tell your child you're proud of him or her for telling and that he or she is not to blame.
    • Protect your child's privacy. Don't tell people who don't need to know.
    • Report the abuse to the police or your local child protection service agency, no matter who the abuser is. If the suspected abuser is a member of your family, your state's department of protective services will be involved.
    • Never confront the offender in your child's presence. Let the police handle all contact with him or her.
    • Call your child's doctor. A medical exam may be needed to collect evidence and can determine whether your child may have any physical injuries that need care.
    Some parents may find it difficult to accept that a family member or friend has abused their children in this way, especially if the abuser is a spouse or even a grandparent. Some parents may deny the truth - or perhaps even become angry with their children - because it is too painful for them to accept (perhaps because of their own history of abuse). But such a denial may do even more emotional harm to a child who has been sexually abused.

    Getting Help
    Sexual abuse must be reported to the police or your local child protective services agency, even if the offender is a close friend or relative. As quickly as possible, call your child's doctor and get a medical exam for evidence and assurance that there is no physical damage. In some cases, the doctor may refer your child to a specialist or a hospital-based sexual abuse diagnostic and management team for the examination. Ask your child's doctor or the sexual abuse specialists involved in the care of your child to recommend a mental health professional to whom you and/or your child can talk, or contact the agencies listed in Additional Resources for support groups and community service organizations.

    Unfortunately, many sexually abused children never get the chance to tell. They live with shame and guilt for many years, and some become offenders as adults. With help, however, children who have been sexually abused can regain self-esteem, cope with guilt, and begin to heal.
    Last edited by Into The Light; December 30th, 2006 at 12:29 PM. Reason: fixed list formats

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  3. #2

    Talking to your child about sexual abuse

    What if you are an adult who has been told you were sexually abused as a child, but don't remember anything specific other than always considering yourself dirty and bad and had inappropriate thoughts towards a family member? And what if you have never been able to imagine a healthy relationship with a man even though you want it more than anything? And what if you freaked out at 18 and hung out with a very bad crowd and were repeatedly raped in addition to being sexually abused by the same adult that you only remember having bad thoughts about as a child (all within about 4 months time)? Wouldn't any of that trigger a specific memory of previous abuse? And, is there any hope at all that this can be dealt with and some day I can actually have a husband and be happy and trust a man? I really really want this.

  4. #3

    Talking to your child about sexual abuse

    Quote Originally Posted by Laurie
    What if you are an adult who has been told you were sexually abused as a child, but don't remember anything specific other than always considering yourself dirty and bad and had inappropriate thoughts towards a family member? And what if you have never been able to imagine a healthy relationship with a man even though you want it more than anything? And what if you freaked out at 18 and hung out with a very bad crowd and were repeatedly raped in addition to being sexually abused by the same adult that you only remember having bad thoughts about as a child (all within about 4 months time)? Wouldn't any of that trigger a specific memory of previous abuse?
    It might. It probably would. But the "mind" is very good at keeping intolerable thoughts out of consciousness until you can handle them (that's what defense mechanisms are about).

    You have obviously been through a great deal of pain and abuse in your life, Laurie. Sounds like it's time for you to start healing...

    And, is there any hope at all that this can be dealt with and some day I can actually have a husband and be happy and trust a man? I really really want this.
    Yes, there most certainly is hope - with the help of an appropriate and experienced therapist (by experienced I mean experienced in treating adult abuse survivors).

    Have a look at this book excerpt: The Child Within.

  5. #4

    Talking to your child about sexual abuse

    I won't say too much more on here until you let me know if this is appropriate to discuss here.
    But ignoring the situation and hoping it will go away usually ends up backfiring. All the bad things that got locked away when the survivor was a child eventually come up in some way. And they can be triggered by a number of things.
    I have been frustrated in the past because I just wanted it to go away or rear it's ugly head all the way so I could face it and get rid of it. These things/memories/whatever always catch me off guard and never get resolved. I want this behind me. I'm so tired of it. All it takes to trigger this is the possibility of a man being interested in me. I have had two phone calls from a man that were lengthy, deep(ish) conversations. We kind of hit it off and so I think he may be interested in me. We covered a lot of ground very quickly and it is normal and expected that he would want to know who fathered my daughter and the circumstances. He didn't come out and ask, but I suspected after we hung up that he had been trying to approach the subject so I would tell him. I never picked up on it while we were on the phone. It is really far from my mind - my focus is always on doing the best I can, being the best I can, being as happy as I can be with whatever I have to work with. Most of the time, I go through my days pretty happy, rising to the challenges of an overload of responsibility, and feeling good about conquering them (cause usually I can) and feeling stronger for it and like I'm growing as a person. There is no room for negative thoughts that I can't dissolve anyway. He may never call again, but it has made all of this come to the surface again. If he knew about this, I don't imagine he would want to pursue any further conversations. I don't blame him for that. But even if I can deal with this this time, is it ok to marry a man and never tell him about this?? I'm usually very honest and open with my relationships and don't feel like it's fair not to, but at the same time, can any man really handle this in someone he is interested in?? I noticed the article you referred me to is directed towards men dealing with women with this situation. I have never met a man who could handle this and I didn't ever have as many pieces of the puzzle as I have now.
    An adult survivor of abuse may end up with a deep lack of trust for everyone, low self-esteem, depression, sexual and parenting problems.
    I have all but the parenting problems. My daughter has always been the best thing that has happened to me. I have always been very sensitive to children's needs and very protective. Hopefully not overprotective. I have always mothered my younger cousins who I believe were abused by their father -the same person I had the bad thoughts about when I was little. (but not the same person I was told abused me)
    As an adult, feelings of self-hatred, guilt or shame may lead to high-risk activities such as alcoholism, drug addiction, or sexual promiscuity. One common symptom among survivors is eating disorders. In a 1990 study of 158 women with eating disorders, more than half divulged they had suffered some form of earlier sexual trauma.
    yes. Guilt. Shame. drug usage. sexual promiscuity. Almost all around the time I was 18 although I had a relapse with the sexual promiscuity about 10 years ago. And, I always put on 10-20 pounds when a relationship ends. Takes me years to get past it and exercise it off again.
    Occasionally, powerful, overwhelming feelings may arise from sexual activity
    I don't understand myself at all here.
    The survivor might feel angry at the perpetrator for putting her through the abuse. She may also be angry at herself for letting it happen. She could carry a lot of anger towards one or both parents for not stopping the abuse. She may just be angry at anybody and everybody for what happened.
    Angry and disgusted with myself. Adults around me when I was 18 blamed me for everything that happened and I accepted all the blame. Now, I don't agree with that (except that I put myself in the wrong places and with the wrong crowd) but my mind has already been programmed that it was my fault. I am not angry with my parents. I don't think they knew anything about it. My Mom has never discussed anything with me. (There is more here but I will not address it here without your permission) She has always told me to never discuss things with anyone. I know this doesn't work for me. I'm sure it's obvious, I need to talk about it. But I need responsible ears listening to me.
    Sometimes, the survivor can picture the child inside her. She can see her sitting in a room, playing with her things.
    I have choppy scenes that I remember. But they are never complete.

    Well, so much for me not saying much more. Hopefully, I have not overstepped my bounds. Please let me know.

    I would love to heal. I don't mean any disrespect to you, but I have tried so many times and it has never happened. I want to find the key but what if I don't? I need a Plan B to fall back on.

    Thank you, again!

  6. #5

    Talking to your child about sexual abuse

    Is it all right to marry and not tell your husband? That's your choice, of course, but you may be underestimating your husband or cheating yourself if you do. The book I mentioned was written by a man who only learned about his wife's childhood abuse after years of marriage. Part of what he talks about is how a lot of things that confused him about her (moods, behavior) suddenly made sense, and certainly his reaction was absolutely NOT to reject or blame her -- quite the contrary -- the book is about how much he wanted and tried to help her and needed to learn how to do that.

    Healing takes time. It also usually takes a therapist who really understands and has experience in working with adult survivors -- not all therapists have that expertise and some don't know that they don't have it -- that's another reason you can and should question a therapist about his or her training and experience before starting therapy.

    You can find more information and resources at Adult Survivors.

  7. #6

    Talking to your child about sexual abuse

    Thanks Mr. Baxter. I will definitely check this out. Have a good day :-)

  8. #7

    Talking to your child about sexual abuse

    Is it all right to marry and not tell your husband? That's your choice, of course, but you may be underestimating your husband or cheating yourself if you do. The book I mentioned was written by a man who only learned about his wife's childhood abuse after years of marriage. Part of what he talks about is how a lot of things that confused him about her (moods, behavior) suddenly made sense, and certainly his reaction was absolutely NOT to reject or blame her -- quite the contrary -- the book is about how much he wanted and tried to help her and needed to learn how to do that.
    At which point do you tell someone? I know, I have to be the one to decide this but I'd love some suggestions/thoughts. I don't like to talk about it all in the first place, nor do I want to tell every guy who comes along. Although, at my age (41) most guys are in a more serious frame of mind to begin with and aren't looking so much for a short-term relationship. I'd really rather only tell the next man who proposes to me after he has proposed. Then I know he is really serious and worth my agony in telling the story. But it seems unfair that I wouldn't have let him know these things before the relationship got serious. Then he could more easily back out before his feelings became so strong. I can never decide which way is better.

    I'm stuck right now. I finally slept and was able to eat last night, but today I can't focus on anything. I'm not depressed, or upset, or anything like that but I can't seem to get my work done, nor can I address any of these issues so I'm not accomplishing anything. This is starting to stress me out because I need to get some work done before my boss returns from her vacation tomorrow. My mind is frozen. How can I tackle this on a regular basis (and what is that anyway?) and still be able to function normally? This happens every time and so to survive I just eventually push it entirely out of my conscious mind and it just sits and waits. I don't want to have to do this again. I want to compartmentalize it (which I'm normally very good at) and do my work and set aside an hour a day or something to think/remember about it and then go back to normal again. Or at least be able to fake it until this is over. None of that is happening now. I feel like a zombie (and it's not even halloween yet :-)). Any suggestions? ideas?

  9. #8

    Re: Talking to your child about sexual abuse

    Don't know if anybody out there has heard of a victim of child abuse reaching adulthood and not quite knowing what was "wrong" with him, but being a victim, I would like to tell everyone my unusual predicament. I am 51 years old and, to this day refuse to allow a doctor to examine me because I refuse to undress or be touched by ANY stranger. When I was in high school, I refused to change for gym class, as a young adult, I refused better paying jobs because of the pre-employment physical, and have even pitched coupons for free deep tissue massages given as gifts, in the trash because I just don't want to be naked and touched by any person. I went through an anti-phobia cognitive behavioral therapy and even when I was practicing my relaxation and breathing exercises, I simply calmly thought "This is why I won't visit a doctor ever again". I have tried (and failed) 5 or 6 different treatment plans, Including "radical acceptance" among others, with no help what so ever. Has anybody ever heard of such a difficult condition to treat?

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