Finding out that your child was sexually abused comes as a massive shock to parents and in the blink of an eye the world has changed. Your delicate ‘pottery vase’ has broken in a million pieces.
“When I found out my child was sexually abused, it felt as if nothing was going to be okay ever again” (Ellie, 45 year old)
Some parents describe the feeling as similar and as intense as grieving without someone dying. A sense of loss, combined with disbelief are often experienced. You may react with disbelief and feel that you want revenge. The fact that your child might have been physically hurt may bring further pain, anger and helplessness.
Fear is also not an uncommon feeling, especially if the perpetrator has not been apprehended. Although it seems impossible, parents could even react in that they may not want to believe that what has happened to the child is the truth and that it ‘will pass’. Finding out that the perpetrator was a family member – someone you know and trust – can further complicate and intensify your feelings. Friends and community members might find it difficult to understand how you feel. Therefore, parents sometimes try and keep it a secret to prevent the stigma and further pain for the child.
“To think that the monster who damaged my child lived under my roof was too much for me to cope with. I felt as if I could not breath” (Anne, 25 years old)
You might also feel guilty about the fact that you could not protect your child and you may start questioning your parenting skills.
Know that the feelings that you are experiencing are completely normal and can be intense and difficult to deal with. It is important however, for you to manage your feelings in order to prioritise your child’s safety and recovery.
Your feelings of anxiety and despair can be exacerbated if the matter has been reported to the SAPS and you are in the process of statement taking, doctor’s examinations, interviews by prosecution etc. As a parent you might experience anxiety about the court process and all the procedures that you do not know. You might even feel that you don’t trust the authorities and that you want to protect your child against it – especially after what he/she has been through.
What exactly is sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is any sexual acts, or attempts to commit sexual acts, with a child, with or without the child’s consent. The statutory definition of rape in the 2007 Sexual Offences Act includes all forms of sexual penetration and is gender-neutral, meaning that ‘any person’ can commit an act of rape or be raped. Children under the age of 12 cannot consent to sex because they do not have the maturity to understand the consequence of their decision. However, adults are not the only people that sexually abuse children, children do to! If a 16-year-old has sex with a 6-year-old – that is sexual abuse.
Sometimes the perpetrator develops a ‘trust – or ‘friendship’ –relationship with the child over a period and he/she introduces the child slowly to different kinds of sexual activity. Children are often not old enough to understand what is really happening to them and they become powerless to stop the abuse. Sexual abuse forces children to deal with intensive thoughts, feelings and experiences that they are not ready for.
“He told me I was special. He said it was our secret.” (Helen, I was 9)
Sexual abuse can happen without penetration or sexual touching. If the child is exposed to adult sexual material, such as movies, pornography or sexual activity, this can also damage them emotionally. The abuser can cause further emotional damage to children by making them keep the abuse a secret and threatening them to harm one of their loved ones or a pet.
“My ‘oupa’ said he will kill my mom if I told. It made me so scared I could not tell.” (Lindie, I was 6)
Sexual abuse can happen to anyone in any community. You can be of any race group, it does not matter if you are rich or poor, it affects everybody young and old, boys and girls. Sexual abuse does not choose. The abuser can be a stranger a friend, one of your trusted family members or even a teacher. Sexual abuse can happen as a single incident, or as many incidents over an extended period of time.
Why did my child not tell?
Parents are often confused if their child does tell them about the abuse and they have to hear about it from someone else, like a doctor. As adults, we find it difficult to talk about our own bodies and our sexual experiences. It is therefore important to understand that children may find it even more difficult, especially because they may not understand what has happened to them and they may experience shame and guilt when they eventually realise what has happened to them, or what is happening to them.
There are many different reasons why children often do not tell someone about the abuse immediately; some of them being because the child:
- May believe that he/she is the only one whom this has ever happened to;
- May think it was his/her fault (for example, the incident occurs while they child is doing something or going somewhere you as parent warned them against, such as walking alone to a shop);
- May feel scared of being judged by family members and friends;
- May think the world and all the people can’t be trusted;
- Has been threatened by the accused and believe(s) the threats to be real (for example, if the child speaks they will kill one of their parents);
- Is scared that his/her parents will not believe them;
- Is scared that his/her parents think they are simply looking for attention;
- Is scared that they will be removed from parental care if people find out;
- May feel a sense of loyalty to the abuser or feel a need to protect them, especially if the abuser was a family member.
What can I expect from my child after the abuse?
Sexual abuse interferes with the child’s process of development and it may affect the way they see themselves in the world.
They may feel different to other children and other people and his or her attitude about things may have changed. They often do not know or understand what has happened to them immediately. A wide variety of different responses may follow the abuse.
The effects of sexual abuse vary from child to child.
We know however, that children who have been sexually abused often continue to suffer even after the abuse has ended. The process of healing from sexual abuse can take a long time. As a parent it is very difficult to accept this.
Some of your child’s reactions may cause you discomfort and frustrate you, anger you or even surprise you. Let’s look at some of the possible reactions:
- Your child may start wetting his/her bed.
- Academic performance could decrease. Learning and focusing can become hard when children have experienced something so stressful. For some children the opposite might be true.
- Your child may develop behavioural problems such as lying, crying a lot, missing school or being defiant.
- Your child’s behaviour may regress – for example, your independent ten-year-old wants to sleep close to you again.
- Your child may develop a low self-esteem and describe himself as ugly, useless or bad.
- Your child may withdraw from friends and spending time with the family.
- Your child may start eating too much or stop eating.
- Your child may stop wanting to attend school, especially if rumours are being spread at school.
- Your child might struggle to sleep or want to sleep too much.
- In certain instances, your child might be unable to control their bowel regulation and soil their clothes.
- Your child might also feel guilty in a number of ways; for not being able to stop the abuse, for not telling someone about the abuse or for the effect it has had on other family members.
Parents please take note that some of the above mentioned conditions, such as bed wetting or uncontrolled bowel movements, can also be signs or symptoms of other health issues. Ensure that you follow up with a doctor should this continue.
- Your child may become anxious or scared for no specific reason.
- Some children may hurt themselves, become suicidal or run away from home.
If your child threatens to commit suicide or shows suicidal tendencies, you MUST act immediately and find professional help. Never think that a child is only looking for attention. Parents often make this mistake. Don’t let it happen to you.
In short, your child may experience a whole change in the way they function in this world.
What should I do when I notice any of the above-mentioned signs or symptoms in my child?
- The number one thing and the most important thing is to simply love your child. Your child will need a lot of reassurance and care from yourself and other people/family that your child trusts. Tell your child that you love him/her unconditionally. It is one of the most important things to remember, because your child may feel that he/she has disappointed you so much that you have stopped loving him/her.
- Spending time with your child is vital. This shows your child that you really care. Whether your child is a toddler or a teenager, they will want to have people around them who are comforting and believe him/her, even if their behaviour suggests otherwise. Spending time does not have to mean that you need to go anywhere, spend lots of money or buy gifts. It simply means doing things together, like cooking, playing games and being there for him/her to listen to their fears or feelings.
- Remember that your child may not be ready to talk about the abuse. As much as you should encourage your child to speak to you about their feelings, you should never force your child to speak about the details of the abuse. Not all children are ready to talk about the abuse and if you force your child he/she might start suppressing their feelings and then refuse to talk about it totally. Give your child time to deal with the pain and when ready he/she will share with you. Try and remember that this is not because he/she does not trust you – it might just be extremely difficult for him/her to deal with what has happened.
- Your child must know that you believe and support him/her and will be there for them through the entire process. This is more important than you can ever imagine.
- The fact that your child has been abused does not mean that you are a bad parent. Be forgiving and kind to yourself. You did not see this coming.
How important is it for me to take my child for counselling?
Your child will most probably need counselling from a professional person like a social worker or a psychologist as a result of the abuse. Many parents are opposed to this and they think their child will overcome the problem by themselves. Some parents think that if they don’t talk about the abuse, the child will forget. In very rare cases, we find children who are what we call ‘resilient’. They somehow manage to move forward from abuse without months of counselling.
This is however not the case for most children. Most children need professional help over an extended period for them to experience real healing from the deep scars of abuse. As a parent, you should also know that one session of counselling can never be enough.
Sometimes child victims of sexual abuse are very young and their intellectual, social and emotional ability is not such that they can really benefit from counselling. This is when counselling for the parent is extremely helpful, as the counsellor will guide you on how to deal with your child’s behaviour such as anger outbursts etc.
As a parent, you might find counselling for yourself and your spouse just as helpful even when your child is older. Teenagers may for example start with self-harming or eating disorders. Counselling will help you to understand and cope with this.
Recovery from childhood sexual abuse can be a long, complicated and often troubling process. Just as grief can take many years for recovery, so can recovery from abuse.
The ‘vase’ might have broken. But as with the art of Kintsukuroi, repairing the ‘vase’ with gold lacquer such as unconditional love, patience, help from professionals and perseverance, the ‘vase’ is put back differently with a new beauty.