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Understanding Child Sexual Abuse
This information is intended to help parents and caregivers better understand when and how children tell about or disclose sexual abuse and some of the things that might make them reluctant to tell or that might keep them from telling. It's important to keep in mind that each child is different and unique and every individual reacts differently to sexual abuse regardless of the type, extent or duration of the abuse. There are many reasons that your child may not tell about the abuse. What's shared here are some feelings that may keep a child from telling and some signs to look for.
The following information is an excerpt from Understanding Child Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Parents & Caregivers, by Loree Beniuk & Pearl Rimer (Central Agencies Sexual Abuse Treatment (CASAT) Program Child Development Institute, Toronto, 2006).
Defining Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse occurs when a person uses his/her power over a child or youth, and involves the child in any sexual act. The power of the abuser can lie in age differences, intellectual or physical development, a relationship of authority over the child, and/or the child's dependency on him/her.
"Touching" is not the only way in which a child can be sexually abused. Sexual abuse includes acts such as: fondling, genital stimulation, mutual masturbation, oral sex, using fingers, penis, or objects for vaginal/anal penetration, inappropriate sexual language, sexual harassment, voyeurism, exhibitionism, as well as exposing a child to, or involving a child in pornography or prostitution.
The offender may engage the child in sexual acts through threats, bribes, force, misrepresentation, and other forms of coercion. Sexual abuse is usually an ongoing pattern of progressively intrusive sexual interactions. Most of the time, the offender is some well known to the child and trusted by the child and/or family.
Telling About Abuse
Disclosure is the process by which the suspected abuse comes to the attention of others. When children or youth tell about being sexually abused, they do not always go to their parents or primary caregivers. They may talk to someone else they trust, like a teacher or friend. Upon learning that your child may have been sexually abused, it is often difficult to understand why s/he did not tell you right away or why s/he disclosed to someone else.
It is important to understand that this is not unusual. It does not mean that s/he does not love or trust you. It may be that your child does not want to worry or upset you or may not be sure that you can cope with learning about what happened. Many children are embarrassed to disclose details of sexual abuse. Others may have been threatened or manipulated into keeping the abuse a secret. If your child does disclose to you, the section "Helping a Child Who Tells" has ideas regarding how to respond to a disclosure.
When & How Children Tell
Some children tell as soon as they have been abused, however, many children do not. Often children wait to tell for an indefinite period of time.
Some children are too young to understand that what happened to them was wrong and may not know to tell. Young children who are not yet speaking and children with special needs may not be able to communicate what happened, or indicate that they need help.
A child may not be able to clearly disclose what happened because young children do not understand time, have difficulty explaining the order of how things happened, and are still developing their memory skills. Sometimes, children think they have told and no one is listening, (e.g., "I don't want to go to Uncle John's anymore.").
Young children are more likely to accidentally disclose. You may suspect that something happened to your child based on:
- things you see or hear during play;
- changes in his/her behaviour;
- overhearing something s/he tells a friend; or
- questions/comments that express specific fears or worries.
Youth are more likely to purposefully disclose by talking about the abuse or by asking for help. Some youth may begin by telling a little and watching how the listener reacts. Over time, once s/he feels believed, safe and supported, s/he may tell more.
What Might Keep a Child or Youth from Telling About Abuse
Every individual reacts differently to sexual abuse regardless of the type, extent or duration of the abuse. There are many reasons that your child may not tell about the abuse. These are some feelings that may keep a child from telling.
- Children who have been threatened may believe that the threats will be carried out if they tell (e.g., the disclosure will result in the break up of the family).
- The child may be afraid of rejection, upset or other negative reactions, either by family, friends, or in some cases, by the alleged offender.
- The child may fear that people will treat him/her differently if they know about the abuse.
Confusing & Conflicting Feelings
- The child may be confused when s/he has been abused by someone trusted, leaving feelings of anger, betrayal or deep sadness. "Why would someone who loves me do something like this?"
- The child may feel confused because s/he loves or cares about the abuser - should s/he be loyal to the abuser or tell what happened?
- It can be very confusing and difficult to understand if the child's body responded to the abuse.
Self Blame & Guilt
- The child may think s/he deserved the sexual abuse because s/he wanted love, attention or accepted presents/treats from the alleged offender.
- Some children feel guilty because they did not try to stop the abuse, while others feel guilty because they did try to stop it, but the abuse still happened.
- Some children who are abused multiple times might feel guilty because they did not tell about the abuse after it first occurred.
Feeling Vulnerable & Powerless
- The child may feel powerless and vulnerable (more at risk) because nothing s/he did stopped the abuse, or there was no way to stop it. The child may think that no one has the ability to stop the abuser.
- Some children are isolated, with no one to help or support them, or they feel there is no one who can protect them or be there to help.
- Children are highly dependent on their parents/caregivers for their safety, well-being and protection, and may worry about who will take care of them if the abuse is disclosed.
Possible Indicators of Sexual Abuse
Some children may display signs, symptoms or clues leading you to suspect that sexual abuse has occurred. These are called indicators. Indicators may be physical, behavioural and/or emotional. If you notice any of the indicators, do not assume that this means your child was sexually abused. Some indicators may be related to something else that is happening such as a death in the family or marital separation.
If you are worried that your child may have been sexually abused, call a Children's Aid Society (CAS) to talk about your concerns.
Possible Physical Indicators of Sexual Abuse
- Unexplained injuries to breasts, genital or anal areas.
- Bloody clothing.
- Blood in urine or stool.
- Complaints of pain in the genital or anal areas.
- Unusual or excessive itching in the genital or anal areas.
- Pain while sitting or walking.
- Sexually transmitted infections.
Possible Behavioural/Emotional Indicators Of Sexual Abuse
- Having more sexual knowledge or awareness than expected for the child's age and stage of development.
- Regressive behaviour (behaviour that seems more like when the child was younger, e.g., thumb-sucking, bedwetting).
- Sexual behaviour with other children involving force or secrecy.
- Copying of adult sexual acts.
- Sleep disturbances (e.g., bad dreams).
- Writing or artwork about abuse.
- Unexplained changes in mood (e.g., becoming withdrawn or aggressive).
- Unusual fear of intimacy or closeness.
- An unusual fear of certain individuals who have particular characteristics (e.g., a deep voice).
- Fear of going to a familiar place.
- Sudden changes in eating habits (e.g. unexpected weight loss or gain).
- Changes in school performance.
- Developmental delays (e.g., not progressing in language or motor development as expected.)
- Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (symptoms related to a traumatic event that do not go away, for example flashbacks, which are memories that make a person feel that s/he is back in a situation. Anxiety, heart palpitations and other signs of stress or fear often happen with flashbacks).
- Physical complaints (e.g., headaches and stomach aches) with no known reason.
- Running away.
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts.
- Engaging in self-harming behaviour (e.g., alcohol or drug use/abuse, cutting, prostitution).
If you suspect or know that your or someone's else's child is being abused, please be their voice and contact your local Children's Aid Society. In Hamilton the numbers are:
Catholic Children's Aid Society of Hamilton: 905- 525-2012
Children's Aid Society of Hamilton: 905-522-1121
Emergency After Hours(for both agencies): 905-522-8053
Community Briefings Archive
For more articles and additional research, check out our Community Briefings archives.
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