Preventing, Addressing, & Healing Child Sexual Abuse
I created this article because there is very little comprehensive information available online in addressing Child Sexual Abuse. I am creating this to help parents, caregivers, therapist, etc. who want to tackle this difficult topic.
Topics Addressed Below Include
Where & With Whom Abuse Takes Place
Statistics tell us that 1 in 10 children will be abused by age 18. This is a staggering number.
It is important to be aware that childhood sexual abuse happens to both boys and girls.
You are encouraged to look up grooming on places like the center for child protection and other sites. Read their articles and blogs to understand in greater detail how gaining access to a child takes frequently takes place: for example this article here
The first important method of prevention is to help kids understand and be prepared for the risks. Families can read books like, “I Said No!” and other age-appropriate books one can find at local bookstores and on amazon. Create a rule in your home of “no secrets, only surprises” and if anyone tells you to keep a secret it’s a sign to tell your mom/dad/caregiver as soon as it’s safe. Help kids understand it’s tricky when someone tells them to keep a secret, but it’s not ok for a friend or adult to ask them to do so. My kids will say things like “only surprises, no secrets”.
A very concerning trend is porn on phones/devices that is easily accessible for teens and kids. Children and youth often do not know what to do with the graphic images, and there is a risk of acting them out. For several parents and families I have encountered, this was a part of their story. It’s important to keep an eye on social media and cell phone activity. It’s also important to let children know if they ever see images on a phone or device and feel funny in their tummy, it’s ok to talk to mom/dad/caregivers about what they have seen.
It’s also important to prevent the cycles of abuse by breaking stigma and addressing child sexual abuse. A lot of times child sexual abuse was never addressed or healed, and is passed on in the same scary secretive manner it occurred in. It’s a coping mechanism for kids to act out what they have been through, so keeping an eye out for sexual acting out and asking about anything you notice with curiosity and compassion. It’s important that we ask tough questions with children to make sure they are safe and keeping each other safe. Many adults naturally shut down and go into denial in the face of these situations, making the toxic secrecy of this abuse that much more toxic. Through education and helping professionals we can begin to heal this epidemic in our communities.
Warning signs something has happened
First, don’t assume it hasn’t happened or won’t happen to your family/child, even if you’re a police officer, counselor, social worker, community leader, teacher, well educated, etc. Remember that child sexual abuse occurs with at least 1 in 10 children before age 18. That means most of us know a family or child that has been impacted.
One of the first signs to notice is a child not wanting to go somewhere or with someone. When children start showing symptoms and signs of resistance to going to family member’s homes, friend’s homes, neighbor’s homes, church gatherings, club gatherings, etc. caregivers need to listen to the resistance and begin to ask questions about safety.
Another symptom that something might be occurring is not eating or sleeping well, and/or having increased nightmares. Sometimes wetting the bed, often well past potty-training years, can occur. Perhaps the child got out of bed at a sleepover and the abuse occurred, so they begin to fear getting out of bed to use the bathroom. There can also be difficulty potty training in younger children.
Sometimes caregivers will notice a significant change in social behaviors such as suddenly getting shy and/or being overly clingy in ways they weren’t before. There may be sudden difficulties or withdrawing in social situations.
Another sign might be playing out the abuse with dolls and/or other kids. Inappropriate play, again, is a child’s way of trying to figure out what happened to them and why a play therapist is the best direction for getting help if concerned. Children are not trying to be “bad” in play, they are trying to make sense of their world.
Sometimes the first thing to be revealed is the threat to keep the child silent and the rest will take time. Let your child take that time.
The child may need a ton of reassurance that if they tell the secret they were told to keep they won’t have to be around that person or place again. There may be potentially strong fears if threats were involved to them or their family.
If your child is indicating something scary happened with a person or at a specific place, for young children, it may be easiest to ask them to show you what happened. They may act out the threat. For example, they may show you how they were threatened by using a doll or by acting it out. Remain as calm as possible, get support, and do your best to listen with reassuring care and reminding them that they are safe.
Children may have conflicting feelings around caring about the person that hurt them because they have been groomed. This can be very hard for a parent/caregiver to witness but know that you will be working on it with professionals, and you do not have to correct the way it is coming out for the child.
Do your best to not ask a ton of questions or any guiding questions. Also, do your best to support them with what they are sharing. The caregivers job at this time is to provide listening support and reassurance of safety.
The very first thing to tell a child revealing sexual, or other abuse is, “this was not your fault”. This may seem obvious, but it has to be stated, and it needs to be stated again and again. Children need to be told they did not do anything wrong. Just like adults that are assaulted need to hear that they did not bring the situation on, children need to be reassured of this as well.
They need to be told they are loved, cared for, and safe. They need to be told they were brave for telling. Sometimes, as they get older, they need to be reminded they are not broken, there is nothing wrong with them for what happened to them, and that they did amazing healing work as children/teens/adults.
After the outcry notify police, the police will provide a case number and schedule a forensic interview at a child protection center. Ask how to best prepare your child for the interview. Ask any questions you need about how the process will work.
More details may come out once the secret is shared. You can look for a counselor for your child during this time, but sometimes starting that process is best right after the forensic interview, check with the play therapist or center that will conduct the interview. Parents and caregivers will likely need support as well.
Sometimes victim’s compensation can help, and a social worker should be assigned from the forensic interview to help with that process. It’s good for everyone to get lots of support.
Know that most of the time the people/places will deny that the child sexual abuse happened. It can be very painful to have that kind of denial come from a neighbor, church, community center, family, etc. that you once knew and trusted. Rarely have I heard of a family that has gone through this process and opened an investigation into the situation get restorative justice. The other parents/family members/community members frequently deny and “protect” their accused child or adult. Leave that process to the police and professionals. Unfortunately, most of the time it becomes a child’s word against their perpetrator in the legal process. This does not mean the abuse didn’t happen, it’s just very hard to build evidence. You have to let go of the justice side, and focus on protection and healing of the trauma.
Sometimes the details coming out get messy, the child may defend the person, change their mind about what happened, play out the scenario in confusing ways, and act out what happened to try to figure it out. You may need to supervise sibling play/friend play if very young and help a child know what to do with those thoughts or urges. For example, helping them act it out on a stuffy, talk about it with their play therapist, or trusted parent/caregiver, etc. Also, if they are in play therapy and getting the help and support, they need, this can alleviate the compulsion to try to figure it out through play, and this concern often resolves. For very young children there may be some questions about diapering by parents or other caregivers as they get a little older and they may need to know what was/is safe and what was/is unsafe. It's important to let them ask questions and help children get clear about safe vs. unsafe people, situations, and actions.
It is normal for parents to feel guilty about not realizing sooner or noticing more signs. This is a family trauma. Just as the child needs to know this was not their fault, reminding yourself that as a parent of caregiver is also very important. Forgiving yourself for what you did not know is some of the most important therapeutic work for a parent/caregiver. The intensity of the pain from the outcry and abuse does fade with time, and healing is possible for the child, parents, and family. Also, it’s important to know that the healing may move at different rates as people work through the stages of grief. One parent may stay stuck in denial, while the other parent is angry or deeply sad. It is important to get individual, family, and play therapist on board as needed and as guided by mental health professionals.
The Healing Process
Certified registered play therapist are recommended for younger children. You may want to interview a few while listening to your instincts.
Continue to work on empowering your child and providing education and guidance and reminding them it is not their fault. There are some very helpful and awesome books available like A Terrible Thing Happened and Healing Days. I have used these books with teens/adults that did not address what happened until later in their teen years or adulthood. Remind children that it is ok to talk to their trusted play therapist about anything they need to.
While it’s scary to wonder what impacts this might have on the family and your child, when working with good professionals you will all learn the healing lessons in this as well, how to reach for help when needed, who can be trusted, how to not keep toxic secrets, how to love each other through painful times in life, building resilience and developing instincts and intuition about who/how to trust and when to get help.
A lot of kids just want to feel normal with their friends and in their life, and it’s important to help them restore this sense of normalcy. It’s important to remind them they are safe, loved, and able to speak up when bad things happen and get the help they need. It's important to keep reminding kids that they did not do anything wrong, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them in having gone through this. There is plenty of good in this world and there are plenty of helpers.
Also, it’s normal for this to come up at different stages of life with new sets of questions. This may come up again when the child hits puberty, as they become teenagers and young adults and begin to date, and when they learn it has happened to others. It’s healthy to remind kids they can talk about it or get the help they need whenever it comes up.