In my experience as a social worker, most children don’t reveal their experience of sexual abuse. Why’s this so?
Most children don’t talk about their abuse. They try to hide their dreadful secret and suffer in silence but usually experience very strong feelings inside such as fear, depression, guilt, shame, betrayal, anger, confusion, helplessness and despair. Some of the reasons why children don’t reveal their abuse are:
• They don’t have the appropriate language and don’t know how to describe the abuse. They’re often confused as to what’s happening to them
• They may have also been threatened by the abuser
• They’re often scared of being blamed, not believed or rejected
• They may love the abuser and don’t wish any harm to come to them
• They’re sometimes too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it; they believe it’s their fault
• They may not even know that telling is an option or they may simply not know who to tell
• Children don’t tell also because adults don’t listen or create safe spaces for them to tell
Silence becomes a way of self-protection.
If children don’t talk about their experience of sexual abuse, then how do adults identify that the child is being abused? What are the signs?
While children may not openly talk about their abuse, they go through such strong emotions that these inevitably come out in other ways, such as changed behaviours and moods. This is termed the ‘silent ways of telling’. These signs suggest that a child has been sexually abused:
• Displaying too much sexual knowledge for their age
• Inappropriate sexual behaviour with other children
• Using dolls or stuffed toys to simulate oral sex or anal or vaginal intercourse
• Drawing pictures about sex or abuse, showing oversized genitals in their drawings of male adults or consistently using ‘angry’ colours such as purple, black and red
• Writing stories about sex or abuse
• Sexually transmitted infections
• Pregnancy in an older child
• Anal or vaginal cuts, sores, bruises or bleeding
There are other signs that may not necessarily mean that the child is being sexually abused, but indicate that the child is distressed about something. Some of these signs are overeating, refusing to eat, over-achievement or under-achievement at school, bed-wetting, retaining urine, nightmares, tantrums, fearful of being alone with some people, aggression, violent or disruptive behaviour, alcohol or drug abuse, and running away from home.
People may notice some of these changes without realizing that they’re signs of distress or sexual abuse. Often, therefore, the child is thought to be ‘going through a phase’. Instead of offering help or care, adults tend to label the child as naughty, silly, difficult, stubborn, mad or bad. Consequently, many survivors grow up believing these labels. It’s important to remember, however, that these behaviours are simply a way of coping with strong feelings which can’t be expressed directly.
Please click here for the previous issue of this Q&A column on child sexual abuse and related issues – Editor.
About the main photo: A poster developed by students of Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata where RAHI Foundation conducted an awareness campaign on incest and child sexual abuse in 2015. Photo courtesy: RAHI Foundation