Through the abuse I described in a previous post, I felt trapped by shame and guilt, and because of that I kept silent. The only way that cycle can be broken is to change the attitudes that cause the shame and the guilt. We need to break the cycle by removing the power from the abusers and giving it to the victims.
Research conducted by the CDC says that 1 in every 6 boys and 1 in every 4 girls are sexually abused before they turn 18 [report]. Estimates are that 85-90% of all abuse happens at the hands of someone the victim knew. This means that the abuse is not random, and it is done by someone who the child was taught to trust. In my case I was shown that I could trust my scout leader, I could trust him because the Boy Scouts trusted him.
Even though the so many cases involve a person known to the child and parents, most parents choose to focus on the possibility of an unknown person harming their child. “Stranger Danger” is an excellent example of this. This teaches children that their biggest threat is coming from someone they don’t know. It also reinforces the idea that if you do trust someone, if they are not a stranger, then they are not going to hurt you. And I don’t want to say that kids should go out and not be cautious around strangers, but statistically they are less likely to be harmed by a stranger than by someone who they know.
Instead of teaching kids that strangers are out to get them, we need to teach them what is acceptable behavior and what is not. When I was first abused, the reason I first didn’t say anything was because I didn’t know what was happening was wrong. Most importantly we need to teach the kids that no matter who does it, the behavior is not OK.
Another unfortunate reality of child sex abuse is that sometimes the children are threatened into silence. And this is probably the hardest thing to overcome. While I was never threatened into silence, the emotion that makes threats effective was still there, fear. I was afraid that my parents would not understand, would not believe me, or if they did believe me, they would question why I didn’t tell them sooner.
As parents, we can combat this by making sure our kids know that we are capable of not reacting emotionally if they come to us with something. Not that we can’t have an emotional reaction to what they are saying, but that if that emotion is anger, don’t show it to the children. Absorb what they are telling us, let them know they were heard, and then take some time, alone (or at least away from the child) and then you can express your anger. Do this for every time your child confides in you anything, and then they will get used to you not getting angry.
If you need to discipline your child for something they came to you about, don’t do it in the moment, take your alone time to figure out what should be done. This way when you tell your child about the discipline you can have a level head. They will learn that actions have consequences , but that it is their actions that caused the consequences, not the act of telling you about it.
You also need to ensure your kids know that you are there to protect them. Tell them this, tell them that you will make sure they are safe if they ever need to talk to you, to tell you something. Make sure they know that no one can hurt them, or their family if they tell you things. I know this isn’t something we can say 100% for sure, but in cases where they tell you something that you can’t keep them safe about, you are sure going to do everything you can to keep them safe.
Remember that kids do things on their own time as well. So there is no way of knowing how long it will take them to get to the point that they feel comfortable to talk to you, even if you make yourself as available as possible to them, and remove as much fear as you are capable. Honestly, I don’t know if it would have changed my actions had my father done anything differently.
But something we can do as parents, is if you have a feeling something happened, ask your child. Let them know that if they say something you will help them and not be angry. But don’t drop it after asking once. Circle back to the question, letting them know that you are only asking because some kids are scared to say something. Do this a couple of times, you may never feel fully comfortable with their answers of “No”, but this gives them some time to think about if they want to say anything, and also recover from the initial shock of hearing it from you in the first place.
Finally, if you do find out about abuse years after the fact, don’t let the issue stay in the past. Know that reporting the abuse allows the authorities to do something, and possibly save more children from being abused. Had I reported the abuse when I told my parents, it would not have been past the statute of limitations, and I would have been able to see my abuser face charges for his crimes. And who knows if there are any children that would have saved from being abused (as it stands no other children have come forward, but who knows, maybe they are in the same boat as me).
The only way we can break the cycle of abuse is taking action ourselves and making sure that our kids know that they can stand up for themselves and prevent the abuse. But if the unthinkable, horrible thing happens, they also need to know that they can say something to you. And finally we can not protect the abusers by not reporting the crimes, regardless if it is because the memories are too painful, or if they are a family member, remember there are possibly other victims or even worse future victims that we all need to think about.