Child sexual abuse: What parents can do if it happens to your child
When a 7-year-old revealed that she was molested by her uncle, what did her mother do?
Parents of children who have experienced sexual abuse reach out to us often wanting to share their experience so that other parents can learn and hopefully spare their children. Susie* is one such mum.
Lauren* was barely in Primary 1 when her uncle started touching her inappropriately. Her distraught mother Susie tells us how she was nearly raped as a child by someone the entire family had trusted.
Here’s her story:
It was only a few weeks ago that my daughter (now aged 10) disclosed to me, with great difficulty, that my husband’s cousin brother had been molesting her for 2 years. The pain she went through is indescribable and I completely broke when she revealed it to me. The suffering is unrelatable, and the images haunt me every now and then, and I have now developed trust issues, in result of that.
One afternoon, as Lauren was getting ready for a nap, this uncle followed her into her bedroom, then locked the door. He used to come over often for family meals and random gatherings. We were all out buying groceries for the bbq that was going to be held later that evening. He told her to strip and climb into bed with him. He too removed all his clothes under the blanket. Lauren obeyed, not questioning him as he was someone with authority who could do no wrong. It didn’t hit her to why they taking a nap together in the nude. She was way too innocent to think about all that.
This happened a few times, till we moved to Malaysia (my husband’s company transferred him there) for a year. I suddenly saw changes in her behaviour. Socially, my daughter became more awkward. She started keeping to herself most of the time and seldom expressed her emotions (which was clashing with her personality). I was worried and asked her umpteen times if something was wrong. For months she kept me in the dark, and I now understand why. She didn’t want to be the cause of any family feud and also wanted to forget the whole incident.
But when we told her we were moving back home, out of fright, Lauren came clean with me. She told me the entire story- how it started, what he made her do, what she did, and that she never questioned or disobeyed him. She said the furthest he went touching her private parts and making her rub his genitals. I felt intense feelings of shock, rage, confusion, denial, disbelief, and guilt. All at once. Lauren and I decided to tell my husband everything and he confronted the uncle.
We felt that the person who has sexually abused a child needs to be held accountable and get specialised professional help. So we spoke to him, got him the help he needed and of course, stayed away from him and his family till now. We are not sure what will happen in the future, but this arrangement suits us best for now. We also kept this between the four of us because we didn’t want the whole family to know (also Lauren made us promise not to).
It was not an easy pill to swallow, especially when you've been constantly sheltering and caring for your child in every way you know best possible. You feel guilt, you feel like you’ve exposed your kid to a monster, and taken away their innocence. Oh, you feel so many things. You want to erase everything she has been through, but you can’t. It was the worst time of our lives, and we went for counselling, communicated a lot, and reassured Lauren that we were there for her, no matter what. And that she could feel safe again.
Sexual abuse of a child by a trusted adult also puts tremendous strain on relationships within the family. Any parent (if faced with an unfortunate similar challenge) should be prepared for some family members to find it hard to believe the abuser could do such a thing, and take sides.
Susie shares with us,”For many mothers, the greatest challenge is dealing with our own reactions to this. If your child tells you that he or she has been sexually abused, your response can play a powerful role in his or her process of healing from the abuse. My advice is to ALWAYS believe your child and never show any sign of doubt. Show them that you are there to help, and you are as hurt and affected by the situation, and will do everything you can to fix it. You child must feel safe again. And remember, they will recover.”
(Story as told to Pavin Chopra)
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved
Click on the next page for tips on what parents can do if it happens to your child.
Disclosure of sexual abuse
Disclosure (when a child tells another person that he or she has been sexually abused) can be a scary and difficult process. Some children who have been sexually abused may take weeks, months, or even years to fully reveal what was done to them.
Children are often reluctant to disclose being sexually abused. Here are some reasons why:
- Afraid that the abuser may hurt them or their families
- Fear that they will not be believed, or blamed for it instead
- Scared that if they tell they will be taken away and separated from their family
Coping with the shock of intrafamilial sexual abuse
Intrafamilial sexual abuse means sexual abuse that occurs within the family. In this form of abuse, a family member involves a child in (or exposes a child to) sexual behaviours or activities.
What to do if your child reveals they have been sexually abused
#1 Stay strong
Your child will look to you for the strength they need to overcome this. You have to show that you can deal with it, that you will let no further harm come to them. Reassure that breaking their silence is the first step and that they will recover and move on to having a happy and fulfilling life hereon.
#2 Believe the child
Appreciate them for telling you, and never doubt them. If the disclosure is hard to believe, keep reminding yourself that false disclosures are rare. Ask clarifying questions in a matter-of-fact way. Steer away from showing disapproval to the answers they give you. It is common that when children sense pain in others, they may take back the disclosure. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t really happen.
#3 Be supportive
It is important that they feel supported. Don’t dismiss their claims or put them off talking about it.
#4 Re-establish safety
Immediately do what is necessary to protect the child from further harm. This has to be a top priority. Sexual abuse takes away a child’s sense of control over his or her surroundings and can lessen the faith that adults will protect them. Establish a plan with other adults so that unsupervised contact with the person who has abused is eliminated. Help the child understand that the person who abused them did something wrong, and that this person needs help to stop hurting others.
#5 Do not despair
Children can and do recover from child sexual abuse. It is incredibly difficult to hear that someone you love has been hurt in such a way, but help to recover is available.
Report suspected child abuse
Reporting suspected child abuse is the first step in preventing or stopping the abuse. MSF investigates child abuse cases to prevent further harm to the child.
To report suspected cases of child abuse, call 1800-777 0000 or inform the police.