The most gut-wrenching thing I often hear from parents is, “How could I not have known?” My answer is usually along the lines of, “Because these people are good at making sure you don’t. If they sucked at staying hidden, they’d be easily caught and nobody’d be doing it.”
How many times have you turned on the evening news to see a report on a child molester whose neighbors are in complete denial? “He’d never do something like that – he mows my lawn every Thursday!” “I see him every week at church. He’s a good Christian, and I refuse to believe he could have done it.” “But he’s just a little old man!” “Well, we don’t have all the facts. We don’t know that really happened.”
Jerry Sandusky was a trusted community member who ran a charity summer camp for children, and he’d been investigated for child sexual abuse in the past. A man who was convicted in 1987 and again in 1994 for sexual abuse was convicted before laws requiring sex offenders to register. He was 100 years old on the day he walked free after serving 10 years for raping a 4-year-old little girl. He hid behind his age and status as a revered grandfather. And who can forget all the scandals with priests?
People who sexually abuse children are very tricky. They don’t randomly pick children to abuse, and they don’t often do it the first time they are alone with a child. Whether they realize what they’re doing or not, they employ a technique called “grooming”. Grooming is is when abusers use their power to take advantage of vulnerable people and coerce victims into sex acts they would not have chosen for themselves. An abuser will get close to the child, make her* feel special or set apart. Non-family members will ingratiate themselves with the family, earning their trust. They may teach the child about “special games” or “special secrets”. A child may reveal a secret to the abuser that the child knows will get him or her in trouble; the abuser promises not to tell, using it as leverage against her later. “If you don’t do what I say / If you tell on me, I’ll tell your parents what you did.” Once the abusive acts start, the abuser may tell the child she won’t be believed or loved, or that she will be blamed or abandoned. In some cases, the abuser may threaten to harm – or even to kill – the child or her family.
Stop It Now! has information on warning signs, as well as what you can do if you suspect someone is sexually abusing a child. Is someone showing an unusual amount of interest in one particular child? Has your child suddenly started to refuse to go to a certain relative’s house? Ask yourself why an individual is frequently volunteering to babysit. Listen to your intuition. If you have an uneasy sense, it is better to protect your child than to dismiss your feelings and risk harm to your child. You might not be able to hang out with someone as often, but your child’s safety takes precedence over your social life.
It can very difficult to realize is that a family member is capable of doing this to children. But, as research has shown, it happens far more often than our society realizes. One of the greatest myths of childhood sexual abuse is “stranger danger”. More than 90% of sexual abuse victims are abused by a family member or someone known to their family. The younger the victim, the more likely the perpetrator is a family member, and 50% of those who abuse children under the age of 6 were family members.
For the child who has been abused, it is difficult enough to come forward without the added burden of fear of abandonment by family who refuse to believe. The truth is that 73% of childhood sexual abuse victims do not come forward until after a year has passed. 45% wait at least 5 years. Some never tell at all.
If your child tells you she is being abused, it is not likely to come out as, “Mom, Uncle X sexually abused me.” She might only relate a little information at a time, a sort of testing of the waters to see how much she can tell you without immediate consequences. Some abusers will use different words with the child than you do in order to create confusion if the child discloses the abuse. Maybe she’s upset and it comes out in one hard, fast string of words.
The best thing you can do is simply listen without judgement or (hardest) reaction. You have every right in the world to be angry that someone hurt your child, but your child may misinterpret your anger as directed toward her, not at the perpetrator. Your child is most likely already terrified, so stay as calm as possible. It can make a huge difference in how much the child is willing to disclose. Please don’t promise not to tell anyone; you will have to break that promise later. Instead, consider telling your child you want to do everything you can, but that may mean telling someone who can help.
Something else to consider is how you frame your questions. “I” statements, rather than “you” statements can go a long way and feel far less accusatory to someone who is already feeling guilty and ashamed. Refrain from: “Why did you freak out when your uncle said hello?” or “You never want to go next door after school anymore, what’s going on with you?” Give these a try: “I noticed you seemed upset when Uncle X said hello.” “I’m concerned that you no longer like going over to the neighbor’s house after school, is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
Above all, reassure your child that you still love her, you aren’t angry with her, and that she’s safe. The Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) has more informationon how you can talk to your child if she comes forward with abuse. Your YWCA chapter may have a support group for parents of sexually abused children.
Please know that sometimes, despite all best efforts, these things happen anyway. It doesn’t mean you failed as a parent, and it doesn’t mean the child failed at keeping herself safe. The guilt lies solely with the abuser. Always.
~ See my article at The New Agenda, “Sexual Assault Awareness Month”, for my view on the media’s treatment of sexual assault.
* I use female pronouns because girls are most often the victims of sexual abuse. The fact is, however, that boys are also sexually abused, and using “she/her” instead of “he/him” is not intended in any to way diminish the experience of sexually abused boys.