Parents and Carers of Children who have been Sexually Assaulted

Child sexual assault is a crime

Child sexual assault is any sexual behaviour imposed on a young person or child by an adult or older child. The sexual assault can involve a broad range of sexual acts including exhibitionism, fondling genitals, masturbation, oral sex, or vaginal/anal penetration by finger/penis or any other object.

Sexual abuse of children is often perpetrated by people who have built a trusting relationship with a child and the child’s family. For example: parents, step parents, uncles, grandparents, siblings, friends of the family, and other members of the community.

Sexual offenders use a number of tactics to establish a trusting relationship. Children are coerced and may be treated as ‘special’ using gifts and trickery to manipulate and silence the child into keeping the sexual assault a secret. The child is also conditioned through the use of threats, blackmail, bribes and punishment not to tell anyone, particularly their parents/carers.

It is important that the total responsibility for the sexual assault of children stays with the offender. It is not the fault of the non-offending parent/carer that the sexual assault happened, or that they were not aware of it. Nothing a child ever does makes them responsible for the sexual assault they experience. Offenders, often to ensure parents are unsuspecting, work hard to build trusting relationships with parents.

Any child can be sexually assaulted and any parent can have that abuse hidden from them if an offender is determined to commit such a crime. Secrecy surrounding child sexual abuse is the predominant way sexual offenders continue to abuse.

Where and when children are sexually assaulted

Children are often sexually assaulted in their own home or in a place that is familiar to them, where they feel comfortable and safe. It is rarely a one-off occurrence, and may continue over a period of years. Child sexual assault can happen at any time that the offender has access to the child, even if other adults are nearby. We often hear the “parent/mother/carer should have known,” but while the community/society continues to blame the child and their family, the sexual offender is free of the responsibility and crime.

Why does child sexual assault happen?

Children are taught to obey adults and believe what we tell them. For example, if a young child is told that the sky is brown and they don’t yet have the knowledge of colours, they will believe you.

If a trusted adult tells a child that being touched or treated in a certain way is perfectly normal, they will believe them.

Disobeying an adult can sometimes mean getting into trouble to a child, and being in trouble is something children understand and fear.

Children might be told that their mothers will not love them anymore, or that they will be sent away because the touching is their fault. They don’t know yet that adults can tell lies, so they believe what they are told. The child may also be told that mum/dad/carer knows about the abuse.

Sexual offenders do and say many things to control a child’s silence about sexual assault, such as:

-          “It is a fun game played between lots of children and adults.”

-          “Children are special and this is the way people show how special they are.”

-          “I spoke to your mother and she said it was OK with her to let this happen.”

-          “Your family won’t believe you, and won’t love you anymore for saying and doing such bad things.”

-          “If you tell anyone you will be sent away; taken at night to a place where bad children go.”

-          “You have been bad and this is your punishment.”

-          “If you tell, worse things will happen to you or your family.”

The child may feel that if they took lollies and gifts from the offender, they were responsible for the abuse and may get the blame for asking it to happen.

It is important to recognise that offenders put in place a number of tactics that are so strong that children are unaware that the sexual abuse is not okay, and not happening to all children. The offender sets up a web-like structure of traps, lies and distortions to isolate the child and the family from knowing about the sexual abuse. Offenders work hard to be seen as the ideal father, uncle, grandfather, brother, trusted family friend, or an upstanding pillar in the community, who is wonderful with children.

Many survivors have described the sexual abuse as “feeling good.” When this occurs, which is a natural physical response to stimulation, the offender will use this as placing responsibility onto the child. This physical response will also silence the victim, leaving them feeling guilty and shameful.

How children tell

Children rarely tell about their sexual abuse and when they do they can often be ignored, silenced or not believed. There may be:

a)      Lots of hums and full stops, and “I forget” and “wait a minute.”

b)      Questions around what is happening, seeking some answers for thoughts that are uncertain or confusion.

c)       A slow seeking of clues, saying explicit words totally out of context, or repeating a chorus of many things that an offender has droned into them.

d)      An innocent enquiry about the normalcy of behaviour that they have been exposed to. They may be worried about being in trouble, but brave enough to take the risk because “something yucky” is telling them to break the secret.

Whatever the way, means and the timeframe that it takes for a child to tell the secret, it is important that it is said in their words and with a sense of being listened to. Young children may struggle to find the words to appropriately describe the true nature of what they have experienced, and it takes a patient and steadfast adult to support their fragmented speech.

Children need the opportunity to say how they are feeling about what they have said. Adults may be more pressed to discover facts, but repetitive questioning may only serve to further confuse and distress the child, and push them back into silence.

Once a child senses the seriousness of your reaction, they may be convinced that the task of telling is too difficult and risky. Your child does not want their problem to take you down also. Children instinctively do not want to burden their parents with the concerns that they have held, and so it is important that they feel supported and believed. Children need to know that they have made the right decision in telling, and the adults in their life are not only able to deal with, but take control of the news they have disclosed.

Children need and deserve adults to believe them and keep them safe. The burden of carrying the secret of abuse is difficult and they should not be left with any responsibility of carrying the wellbeing of those around them.

They need to know that the good things that remain in their life will not change or be taken away from them. Simple things remain, be it dinner times and bed times, bath times and reading times, cuddle times and play times. These things are what children use to judge safety and structure. These things are what they use to judge that they are cared for and that they matter.

A significant and crucial factor is the degree of support and care the child received from family members. To be believed, to be made safe, and to receive emotional and physical nourishment are all critical if a child is to move on from the effects of the sexual assault.

How the disclosure may affect you

When you discover that your child has been sexually assaulted, there may be an array of emotions that you will endure. There is no right way to feel or respond with thoughts and feelings that you may have never dealt with before.

Shock and disbelief: You may find it hard to accept what you are hearing or what you have been told, so you might search for other explanations to try and take away the reality of what you are being asked to believe.

Being out of control: You may feel that nothing is like it used to be, and the ways you have coped with pain in the past seem not to work. The weight of what you are carrying may smother you, and there is no conviction that you will have the strength to stop it from overwhelming you.

Outrage: When you start to take in and accept the brutal reality that your child has been sexually assaulted, you may feel a rage that you have never felt before.

Guilt: You may find you begin blaming yourself for not knowing what was happening to your child. You may believe that you have let your child down as their protector, the person they should be able to tell if they are being hurt. You may think that you couldn’t have been listening; believing as a parent you should understand what your child meant, yet some children have difficulty in finding the words to describe what has happened to them.

Frustration: You may feel frustrated with the legal system and the lengthy process from first contacting the police, through to the courts. At this time, you may feel the offender has walked away with the mother/carer being left with the responsibility of the crime.

Shame: That people now see you as a bad parent because they want to believe that sexual assault would never happen to a child with a good parent. So you keep away from the so-called good parents and you hide from others who either don’t want to know, or would never understand. You keep silent, for how can you speak about this to those who can’t know?

Fear: That you will see him or he will seek you out, or your child will see him or he will seek your child out and the sexual abuse that should never have happened, could happen again.

Grief: For the loss of what you thought would never be taken: the innocence of your child, your integrity as a parent, your trust in the world, and your hope for the certainty of your future.

All of these feelings may become confusing and overwhelming, and each experience affects us differently. You do not have to battle with your feelings and emotions alone; seek some support from safe people. It is important to remember that the offender is totally responsible for the sexual abuse of your child; the blame rests solely with them.

One of the strongest messages received from other parents/caregivers is “to not let the trepidation of tomorrows take away from the needs of today.”

For a young child, their life is so new that the possibilities of what may arise because of the abuse have the timeframe of eternity. Parents/caregivers have stated that trying not to look at what might arise in the future and staying with the things that were happening in the immediate present enabled them to be there for their child, for others, and for themselves.

The following are some of the ways you can help yourself and your child:

To believe them no matter what they tell you, and reassure them that they are believed. Do what you can to keep your child as safe as possible without isolating them from society, let your child see that you are committed to doing this.

To know that you are there for your child and find the resources that will support you through this.

To let your child know by talking with them and holding onto them, that you are there for them no matter what. Nothing is too bad that it can’t be told.

Don’t keep searching for more information from your child if there is no more for them to say. If you are being shaken by questions of “what if?” and “why didn’t?” then don’t share them with the child. Placing pressure on them to solve your questions can only add to their sense that perhaps you don’t believe them enough, or they have let you down.

To let them know what is happening if it is something you feel important for them to know.

To keep them from anything that may only burden or worry them.

To be consistent in what you say about what has happened and how things are.

Finding support

Child sexual abuse is not just a crisis for the child; it is also a shattering experience for the mother and other non-abusing family members. Try to get back to your contact with other people not affected by the abuse, and fight for normalcy. If people don’t need to know what has happened, don’t tell them, and if they already know, ask them what they want to ask you and then ask them to let it go. Tell others what you need, as they may not know.

Trust yourself. Don’t let feelings of failure or inadequacy take you over and make you forget all the strengths you do have, especially your relationship with your child. Remember the tactics of the offender. When you are having these feelings and thoughts, it places the responsibility on you not where it rightly belongs, with the person who has sexually abused your child.

For more information and support, please contact Laurel House (North) on 6334 2740, Laurel House North West on 6431 9711, or email counsellors@laurelhouse.org.au

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