Do you think that sexual abuse couldn’t possibly happen in your family? Do you think that only the children of neglectful parents are abused? Do you think your children are too sensible to place themselves in a position where they could be abused?
If so, I have an uncomfortable truth for you: 20 per cent of girls and 8 per cent of boys under 18 experience some form of sexual abuse – and one of the reasons why sexual abuse is able to be so prevalent is because of those kinds of assumptions.
The problem with sexual abuse is that it’s so frightening, we find it hard to think about it clearly. So rather than open our eyes to the realities we tell ourselves stories that serve to make us feel safer.
We tell ourselves that abusers are all strangers, that abuse only happens in other families, that young boys who have sex with adult women ‘got lucky’.
We tell ourselves that our children can successfully avoid abuse by following a few simple rules: avoid ‘stranger danger’, scream loudly, and run away.
We tell lots of stories that make us feel safe, but these same stories can also put our kids at risk. Our rigid ideas about what counts as abuse, who does the abusing, and what types of children get abused are all part of the problem.
But the challenge for parents is to turn their backs on a false sense of reassurance and open their eyes to the truth.
Just as parents do when it comes to the risks of accidents or illness, the first step in equipping children for the risks of abuse are to understand them yourself. Which means challenging the reassuring assumptions that can blind you from the truth.
Here are some of those myths we need to ditch. Fast.
1. I can spot abusers
This is a very unsafe assumption. It’s not possible to reliably identify a ‘type’ of person who is a sex offender. Sexual offending is a crime that transcends ethnicity, class, religion, educational background, sexual orientation, occupation, and income. Sex offenders can be young or old; single or married; male or female, a parent, grandparent, or have no kids of their own.
Even when it comes to their behaviour, far from being creepy men who hang out in playgrounds, effective sex offenders are charming, fun, out-going, and well-liked.
There are signs that you can look for, for example, an abuser is likely to seek opportunities to be alone with your child. But these signs are much more subtle than most parents realise.
2. I would know if my child was being abused
The simple fact is: most parents don’t realise that their children are being abused. Not every child will show signs of the abuse. Sometimes this will be because the child doesn’t feel hurt or frightened by their experience.
They may see the abuse as a new type of game from a person that they like. These children may only recognise their experience as abuse years later when they look back and can see that they were being groomed and manipulated. Other children may feel hurt and afraid but they may be good at masking these feelings, especially as they are also likely to be very confused.
Abusers are often liked, or even loved, by the children they abuse. It can be incredibly confusing to accommodate feelings of love towards someone who is also hurting you. Children may deal with this by accepting the abuse as normal – minimising it, or blaming themselves.
Signs parents should look for include sudden behaviour change, withdrawal, problems at school, nightmares, or reluctance to spend time with certain people. But don’t assume that these signs will always be there.
3. My child would tell me if they were being abused
Some children tell their parents about the abuse, but most don’t. For some this will be because they don’t recognise their experience as abuse. For others it will be because they blame themselves and feel too ashamed to share their secret with anyone else.
Some children will worry about getting in trouble. Others will worry about upsetting their parents, especially if the abuser is a member of the family.
This message is likely to be reinforced by their abuser who may also threaten to hurt the child’s parents if they tell, or convince the child that no one will believe them if they tell the truth.
Other children simply won’t have the words – they may never have discussed sex or abuse with their parents, they may not know the word ‘vagina’, or they may not know how to start such a difficult kind of conversation.
What words would you use?
Rather than relying on children to have the courage to report abuse, parents need to be alert to any subtle signs. They need to talk to their children and create a family environment where it’s okay to discuss even the most difficult things, and if they are really concerned parents need to ask.
Surely the worst that can happen is that you’ll find out the truth by asking.
Our messages about sexual abuse place an unrealistic amount of responsibility on our children to prevent or disclose their abuse. Our kids need us to do better.
We need to have the courage to open our eyes and to live with a bit more fear, so that our kids can live with more safety.