Keeping them safe
Helping sexually abused children
In many countries, it is now mandatory to report suspected cases of abuse. How should we react if approached by a child who wants to talk about a problem? Leah Davies has some practical advice.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is sexual behavior by an adult or older child including kissing, fondling, sexual intercourse, oral sex, forced nudity, prostitution, photographing, or other behaviors with sexual connotations. Since children are trusting and look to older persons for direction, every child is vulnerable to sexual abuse.
The frightening truth is that most of the abusers are either a relative, neighbor, family friend, babysitter or someone else the child knows and trusts. Therefore, a teacher or other school personnel may be the only adults who can ensure a child’s safety.
The following are some indicators commonly found in situations of sexual abuse. They may raise suspicion, but of course, alone they are not enough to report suspected cases.
- Excessive parental dominance
- Parental over protectiveness
- Extreme reaction to sex education or personal safety lessons
- Family isolation from community support systems
- Denial of friendships with other children
- Parental jealousy
- History of sexual abuse of either parent
Indicators are complex – and often contradictory.
- Abrupt change in behavior or personality
- Extreme compliance
- Detached, inattentive
- Irritable, aggressive
- Passive or hyperactive behavior
- Poor peer relationships
- Withdrawal when touched
- Frequent absence and/or late arrival at school
- Reluctance to return home after school
- Excessive washing or poor hygiene
- Avoidance of restroom or other specific places
- Excessive layers of clothing
- Wearing provocative clothing
- Sexual interest and knowledge beyond what is usual for child’s age
- Seductive behavior towards children and/or adults
- Persistent sexual play with peers, pets, toys or themselves
- Sleep disturbances
- Change in appetite or eating disorders
- Trauma to the mouth, genital or anal area
- Sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy
- Suicide threats or attempts
- Truancy or running away
What To Do If You Suspect Sexual Abuse?
Firstly, discuss this with a colleague with responsibility for Safeguarding, always act within your school’s Safeguarding Policy, and work with the team to address suspected problems. However, if you are approached by a child who may want to confide in you, or it is agreed that you are the person a child shares something with, the following might be useful: Speak in a calm, matter-of-fact manner saying something like:
- “Is there something you want to tell me?”
- “Are you having a problem and need help?”
- “When something feels bad inside, it’s okay to talk about it.”
If the child says, “I have something to tell you but you have to promise not to tell anyone,” your response could be: “___________, since I care about you, I can only promise to help you. I may have to ask someone else to help us.”
Do not pressure or prompt the child by asking questions. Allow him/her to speak at his/her own pace. Crayons and paper may be used to facilitate communication. If the child discloses abuse, make written notes unless you feel note taking will stop the child from talking. In that case write down what was said immediately after the conversation.
If the child chooses not to communicate after you have waited a sufficient amount of time, you could say something like,
“_____________, I want you to be okay. If you ever want to talk about anything, just let me know. Or, you may write me a note if you like.” Do not express anger, shock or disgust if a child tells you about being molested because he/she may mistakenly interpret your emotion as directed toward him/her.
Since a child rarely lies about sexual abuse, take the situation seriously. Show acceptance, support and caring, but do not touch the sexual abuse victim unless you first ask permission. Commend the child for telling you about the abuse and offer reassurance that he/she did the right thing. For example you could say: “This was hard to talk about, but you did the right thing to tell me. It’s not fair to ask you to keep that kind of secret.”
After a conversation of this sort, it is always important to debrief with the safeguarding team, however the conversation has started.
Reassure the child
Help the child know that it was not his/her fault. Reassure the child that he/she has every right to feel safe, and that other children have had similar experiences. You may say something like: “This doesn’t make you a bad person. You are a good person and so are the other children who have had this happen to them.”
Reflect the feelings and information you hear, making sure your facial expressions match what the child is saying. The following are some examples of what you might say: “When you were blamed for what happened, you may have been afraid to tell anyone else”. “You tried to tell your mom, but she got mad and didn’t believe you, so you didn’t think anyone else would believe you either.”
Truthfully respond to any question, yet do not make promises you cannot keep. For example you could say: “I am not sure what will happen, but I will be here for you at school.” Follow the school procedure based on the state standard for reporting abuse. Tell the child the next step you will take. Say something like: “I will call a person whose job it is to keep children safe. This person will come to listen to you – just tell them what you told me. Then you will be asked some questions.”
If you sense that a child is unsure, you could say, “___________, you have been hurt and if you don’t tell about what happened, this person may hurt other children.
Report the conversation
As soon as possible report the conversation to the appropriate authority. Keep the meeting with the child confidential; do not mention it to anyone who is not professionally involved. Treat the child normally at school showing the same respect and caring you show every student.
Help the child meet his/her basic psychological needs to feel accepted, safe, secure, and a sense of belonging. Validate him/her by noticing and commenting on his/her positive attributes.
Make sure there is follow through and that the child receives support and assistance.
Leah Davies, M.Ed.
Leah Davies received her Master’s Degree from the Department of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, Auburn University. Her professional experience of over 44 years includes teaching, counseling, consulting, instructing at Auburn University, and directing educational and prevention services at a mental health agency.
For younger children using the video DVD, “Kelly Bear Teaches About Secret Touching,” may be helpful.
Click here to see all the Kelly Bear Life Skills Education DVDs at www.kellybear.com.