Navigating Sexual Abuse - For Parents
Alarming data from the CDC shows that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience some type of sexual abuse during childhood. Research also shows that 91% of sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by individuals known by the child or child’s family. This could be family members, teachers, coaches, church members, and even other children. Scary, huh? My goal is NOT to scare you (though I may have already done that…I’m sorry!); my goal is to help you be prepared and intentional in protecting your kids.
For this article, I will broadly define sexual abuse as ANY unwanted and nonconsensual touch or sexual contact, verbal comments, and inappropriate photos/videos.
I will cover basic prevention tips, the developmental impact of sexual abuse, behavioral warning signs, what to do if you suspect your child has been sexually abused, and who to seek for professional help.
Ready? Let’s go.
Educate your children on safe/unsafe touch, as early as possible. Books are incredibly helpful with this, giving you a template of how to approach a conversation with your child, as well as developmentally appropriate language to use. Only provide information that is appropriate with their age. You can increase detail as your kids get older. Some recommended books include:
Good Pictures, Bad Pictures (Jr. version available also)
Educate your child on safe/unsafe secrets. For example, a safe secret is a surprise birthday party, while an unsafe secret is someone touching under your pants.
Educate on the behaviors of safe/unsafe kids and adults. How do we know we can trust someone? What qualities does a safe grown-up demonstrate? Who are the safe grown-ups in your child’s life? Establish yourself as a person your child can tell ANYTHING to (more about this later in the article).
Educate older children and teenagers on internet dangers, catfishing, sexual predators, and false identities.
Monitor what apps and video games your children and teens are using, and what conversations they are having online. There are some programs that can help you with monitoring and securing your internet use, including: Qustodio.com, Mobicip.com, Bark.us, Netnanny.com.
If your child is going to a sleepover, party or event, make sure there is adult supervision. Does your child know how to contact you if he/she feels unsafe or uncomfortable? Consider creating a code word in case your child is feeling embarrassed to share with you. Empower your kids with a plan of what to do and who to contact when at school, church, or family gatherings, as well. Kids lack templates of what to say and do; it’s our job to teach them. Think about it this way: kids do not know what they don’t know, and if they do not know how to problem-solve potential problematic situations, they will be at a loss for what to do and may remain silent. It’s much better to do this proactively than reactively.
Educate your children on the proper, anatomical names of body parts. Abusers will frequently nickname body parts to avoid exposure. If your child does not know the names of their body parts, it can make it difficult to identify how and where your child has specifically been abused. Using anatomical terms provides clarity.
Normalize that sexual touch can feel good, as this is how God designed it for adult married couples! It can be very confusing for kids when they feel guilt/shame simultaneously with pleasure. Kids just need to know the context of when, how, and with whom sexual experiences are safe. There should be ongoing conversation with your children about all of the above topics. It’s not a one-and-done conversation (as tempting as that may be!). We need to be continually educating ourselves of the latest trends and dangers, and conversing with our kids/teens throughout their childhood.
The Developmental Impact of Sexual Abuse
How does sexual abuse impact a child’s brain and emotional development? Is sexual abuse a trauma? “Trauma” is our body and brain’s response to a given negative event/experience, overwhelming our ability to cope. Two children could go through the same scary experience, and one child becomes “traumatized” while the other child adapts more effectively, untraumatized. This being said, it is my personal belief that the experience of sexual abuse IS trauma to 99.99% of people (this is my own statistic). I have never met a child or adult, who was not impacted by their sexual abuse history (no matter if it was a one time or repeated event). Sexual abuse has implications on body, soul, mind, and spirit: changing a person’s ability to trust self/God/others, distorting relationships, increasing negative beliefs about self/God/others, and more.
God has made our brains INCREDIBLE in that they have the ability to self-preserve and dissociate (or separate) from pain. Our brains can block out and forget experiences for days, months or years. But just because we don’t remember something, doesn’t mean it hasn’t, or isn’t, affecting us. Same with our kids. Our kids don’t need to be able to verbally articulate an experience for it to have affected them or for them to get healing from it (more on this shortly).
Research shows that trauma overdevelops our stress response system. When a child has experienced trauma, he/she will more quickly become dysregulated and exhibit fight, flight, freeze responses. You might see behaviors such as fighting, aggression, anger, shutting down, withdrawing, crying, staring, lack of speech, anxiety…the list goes on! Many of the BIG FEELINGS and BIG BEHAVIORS parents see at home are not actually due to blatant noncompliance, defiance, or hyperactivity, but rather hypervigilance: the stress response. Which brings us to our next section: Behavioral warning signs.
Behavioral Warnings Signs
Some of the signs of sexual abuse include:
Sexualized behaviors, such as rubbing, touching, or acting out. (Kids often reenact what they have experienced or observed.)
Making sexual references or comments inappropriate to the child’s age
BIG FEELINGS (intense anger, sadness, fear)
Shutting down or withdrawing
Regressive behaviors not typical of the child’s age
Crying (without known cause)
Bed wetting or soiling pants
Avoidant behaviors (indicating fear toward a person, place, object or activity)
Pain in genital area
Low self-esteem/negative self-talk
It is important to note that the above warning signs are merely CLUES and do not automatically mean that your child has been sexually abused. These warnings signs could be indicative of other traumas, stressors, and mental health issues. If you repeatedly observe any of the above, it would be prudent to seek the help of a mental health professional who specializes in treating trauma/sexual abuse in children.
HELP! I think my child has been sexually abused!
As wonderful as our relationship might be with our kids, we cannot expect our kids to verbally disclose their sexual abuse to us. In fact, the average disclosure time is approximately 2 years after the alleged abuse. (If your child does verbally disclose to you, give thanks! That is a blessing not every parent is afforded). Part of the “grooming” process of sexual abuse is to alternately make the child feel special while instilling fear, shame, and guilt—with the end goal of making kids think the abuse is their fault. And oftentimes, kids are brain-washed by the abuser to believe that they will be kidnapped, put in jail, or never see mommy or daddy again if they tell about the abuse. While this may not happen in every sexual abuse case, it does happen.
It can be tempting to bombard our kids with questions in an effort to obtain answers (especially if we are in our own state of panic). However, this can cause our kids to shut down, become anxious, lie, or fear punishment. Our greatest tool is listening. Instead of asking a question, try using a reflective statement, such as “you feel sad” or “you don’t want to share with me right now.” These statements help your child feel seen, heard, and valued, which helps your child feel safe with you. This “felt safety” allows for lowered defenses and stress responses. When abuse is suspected and reported to the hotline, a skilled child protective professional will know how to ask the questions and record answers correctly in order to help the child and case. This is why it is important not to ask too many questions, as you can be accused of “coaching” your child, should it go to court. A well-trained therapist can help guide you on proper language to use with your child if you suspect sexual abuse.
If you suspect your child has been sexually abused, seek the help of a licensed mental health professional as soon as possible. If a report to the hotline has not been already made, the therapist, by law, will make the report. A trained child therapist can assess if they believe your child has experienced sexual abuse, as well as help your child work through their emotional and behavioral issues. There are two types of therapies I recommend, described below.
PLAY THERAPY—It is my belief that play therapy is the most effective approach to exploring and treating kids’ sexual abuse issues because it is a developmentally appropriate modality. As a Registered Play Therapist, I believe in allowing kids to communicate their internal world, thoughts, feelings, and experiences using their first language: PLAY. Sexual abuse can happen as young as infancy, and get stuck in a child’s implicit (or subconscious) memories. Kids under the age of 10 do not have the verbal and cognitive development, or skill, to articulate their feelings and experiences with words. Play allows for the expression of these implicit memories. Play therapy allows kids to take the therapy session where THEY need it to go, rather than what we (the adults) think they need. A trained play therapist will use a combination of toys, games, art, books, and educational tools to treat your child’s sexual abuse.
EMDR —Another helpful treatment modality for sexual abuse is Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR was created to process trauma by utilizing bilateral stimulation, with eyes, ears, or touch, to process negative beliefs and feelings around a stressful event. There are a variety of EMDR adaptations that an EMDR trained therapist can provide to make it a helpful treatment tool for kids and teens. I combine EMDR and play therapy for a dynamic treatment plan with my kid and teen clients. One of the BEST things you can do as a parent is go to your own therapy to reduce the distress you have about your child’s known or suspected abuse. Chances are, you have your own negative beliefs, guilt, shame, and anxiety over your role in the situation. We tend to personalize experiences and use magical thinking (i.e. “If I wouldn’t have let my child go to the playground, this wouldn’t have happened.”). Your child needs you to be present for him/her—which requires your own self-reflection and processing. EMDR has proven highly successful in lowering the level of disturbance for parents who have experienced the trauma of their child’s abuse disclosure.
While all of this information can feel heavy and overwhelming, please know that there is hope. God has made our brains neuroplastic, meaning they can change! We are not stuck. The sooner you can implement the above prevention strategies, or seek the appropriate help for your child, the better off you will be, and the healing process will begin.
I originally wrote this blog post for Key Ministry in October 2021 as part of their sexual abuse and prevention series. It is cross-posted on their website at: https://www.keyministry.org/church4everychild/2021/10/21/navigating-sexual-abuse-for-parents?fbclid=IwAR04juFrcTIB_oRi9dsf4EiiuC0mEvVH-gH7HaWmItESY1Yi66_Yz3S0aO