Trust. It’s one of the strongest, yet most fragile bonds we form. Most of us develop our sense of trust and security during childhood. But what happens when that trust gets shattered? As I watched the Larry Nassar sentencing, I found myself asking that very question. I thought of the victims who trusted this professional to care for them, only to be hurtfully violated. I thought of the trust parents instilled in this physician to “treat” their daughters, only to find out that trust had been shattered.
Far too often children are sexually abused by adults who were supposed to take care of them. RAINN, or the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, reports that every eight minutes, child protective services substantiates a claim of child sexual abuse. In the U.S., it’s reported that about 63,000 youth are sexually abused, with 2 of every 3 cases occurring when kids are ages of 12 and 17 years. Reports indicate that over 90 percent of youth know their abuser, where 34 percent were family members, 59 percent were acquaintances and 7 percent were strangers. It’s frightening to think the abuse may be perpetrated by the very people we know and trust.
So, as a parent, how do you begin to make sense of such a senseless act? Many of us seek to place our children in what we consider to be secure environments with trusting people, but what if we discover that one of those people had been sexually abusing our child? What then? Where do we begin?
5 Things You Should Do if Your Child Is Sexually Abused
First – though it may be exceedingly difficult – stay calm. It’s OK to feel like a frantic mess on the inside, but play it cool on the outside. Your child may already feel guilty, and the last thing he needs is to think that by telling you it has made the situation worse. So, by looking like you have everything under control, your child may feel a little more calm.
Believe your child. Children rarely make up fake stories about being sexually abused or assaulted. It takes a lot of strength and courage for a child to come forward and share such sensitive and potentially embarrassing information.
Reassure your child that the abuse is not her fault. Your child needs to reestablish a sense of safety and security.
Wrap your child with extra love. Breaking the silence can be a very scary experience and lead to your child feeling extremely vulnerable. Your child may be experiencing fear that the perpetrator will cause more harm, fear that you won’t believe her, fear that telling will cause a lot of trouble, or fear that she will be taken away from you. Your child needs to know that you love her right now more than ever before.
Get help. If you suspect a child is being sexually abused, report it. Here are some resources to assist you with the process:
- Call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. Trained staff are there to help with crisis intervention, information and referrals to emergency, social service and support resources. Calls are confidential.
- Call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE(4673) to speak with a trained professional in your area.
- Visit RAINN’s State Law Database to learn more about the applicable laws in your state.
Unfortunately, only about a third of sexual assaults are reported to the police, according to RAINN. One of the primary reasons youth don’t tell anyone is fear. It’s important to remember that perpetrators are skilled at using fear tactics to manipulate victims and keep them from reporting the abuse.
Not only parents but all adults should be aware of the warning signs that a child is being sexually abused, since we all have a role in protecting youth. These warning signs include:
- When a child avoids certain situations with certain people. Pay close attention to what’s happening if your child is withdrawn, anxious, afraid or nervous around a particular person. If your child begs and pleads with you to not spend time with a particular family member, look into what’s causing that strong reaction.
- Fear of leaving comfortable settings, like home. If your child starts to become anxious about leaving her comfort zone, that’s a strong indication that something troublesome is happening.
- Drastic changes in a child’s behavior. Pay attention to things like depressed mood, poor hygiene, changes in eating habits or withdrawal from friends and family. Behavioral signs are among the first signs that something isn’t right, and they may point to sexual abuse. Don’t ignore obvious or sudden changes or chalk them up to kids being kids. Look for the cause.
- Withholding information and being more secretive. If you notice that your child has gotten quieter and appears more emotionally withdrawn, dig deeper to determine what’s going on.
- Body image insecurity. Being modest is one thing, but being mortified and embarrassed is another. If you notice that your child is having a lot of body image concerns and is overly embarrassed about her body and showing signs of insecurity, talk with your child. Perpetrators are often harsh and critical of their victims, and as a result, youth often feel as though they aren’t attractive or good enough.
In addition to paying attention to what’s going on with your child, watch for these warning signs that may indicate a person who interacts with your child is a perpetrator of child sexual abuse:
- Acts more like a peer than an adult role model. This person may cross boundaries by entering into the child’s personal or social space, such as sharing social media information, playing online games, or calling or texting a child.
- Offers to watch your child for long periods or spends lots of time with the child. Be wary if the adult is constantly volunteering to babysit for free, even when there’s not a need, or if the individual invites your child over for unwarranted sleepovers.
- Showers your child with excessive gifts. Perpetrators will buy their victims gifts as a means of grooming them or to compensate for their silence. Your child may or may not show you these gifts. If she does show them to you, odds are you’ll begin to get suspicious. But if she doesn’t and you start to notice items you didn’t purchase, ask where they came from.
- Ignores personal boundaries. Perpetrators often don’t pay attention to physical and personal cues. They may try to hold, hug, kiss, touch or wrestle with a child, and ignore the child’s resistance when he tries to squirm away.
- Talks openly about sexually inappropriate material. Perpetrators often cross the line in conversations about sex or the sexual development of the child. These conversations may even happen in front of the child.
As a society, protecting our children should be a top priority. It’s troublesome to think that there are people who want nothing more than to take advantage of and harm kids. One of the best ways that we can ensure our children’s safety is to establish an open line of communication with them. From an early age our children need to know that they can share anything with us, and that if anyone ever threatens them, that they should tell, and we can protect them. We should teach them how to respond if someone does something, like touches them inappropriately. It’s sad that we have to have these conversations, but in today’s world, they are necessary.
I think back to all of the strong women who reported Larry Nassar’s sexually abusive behaviors, and despite of all of the numerous reports, no one acted until years later. Sadly, in that span of time, so many other young women were sexually traumatized by this so-called “trusted” adult. There is no way to rationalize or justify the heinous act of child sexual abuse, but the devastating effects don’t have to be indefinite. With professional help, love and support, you can help your child move from being a victim toward becoming survivor.