Written and provided by The Mamabear Effect
When The Words Can’t Come Out – Behavior Often, But Not Always, Speaks
Sexual abuse is innately psychological – it affects a person’s sense of body autonomy, self worth, ability to trust others, properly identify safe and unsafe situations, and to simply focus on daily tasks in an efficient and healthy manner.
There is no exact ‘road map’ for how the brain will respond to sexual abuse, there are a multitude of factors that come into play – the child’s family situation, their own age and mental capacity, who the offender is and how the abuse is being perpetrated, just to list a few. To say that there is a ‘typical’ response to abuse is not only ignorant, it’s also hurtful to survivors essentially shaming them for not acting the ‘right’ way, as if their behavior somehow lessens the impact of the abuse and puts blame on the subject of the abuse.
Yes, There Can Be No Signs
Before we begin going over the possible signs of abuse children may exhibit, we strongly urge you to make a habit of talking about body safety with your children, and on occasion specifically asking if anyone has ever broken a body safety rule. Numerous parents have shared with us that their child disclosed abuse during one of these talks.
How can a child not show signs of abuse?
- The child may not know that what is happening to them is wrong, offenders often try to make such contact friendly – as part of a game
- The abuse may not hurt and therefore the child is confused about how their body is responding to stimulation
- The child is mentally blocking out the abuse – which can happen for years, even into adulthood
- The child is so concerned about the consequences of disclosing (breaking apart a family, facing the reaction of those who find out, having to go to the authorities, etc) that they go above and beyond to maintain a normal composure
We also recommend choosing other trusted adults (or responsible teen, like an older sibling or cousin) to be part of their ‘body safety circle.’ These people should be educated in your child’s body safety rules and prepared for a possible disclosure of abuse. The reality is, children are better protected when they are surrounded by people that support body autonomy and understand how abuse is perpetrated.
Now, depending on the age your child – they may ‘test’ what it means when someone breaks a body safety rule. It is important to listen, respond with a calm voice, and make a decision on how to proceed with the information given. If you are unsure if you need further help, there are resources available.
Fear may be one of the more obvious sign of abuse, but it is not necessarily directed with the intensity that many expect. Depending on the age of the child, their relationship to the offender, and the extent of the abuse – the child may or may not be fearful of their abuser. Naivete, level of trust with the offender, combined with an offender’s specific intention of not causing physical pain (at least not at first) to the child, often create feelings of confusion, not fear. However, if the child does understand that what is happening is wrong and/or physically feels pain from the abuse, or is threatened by the abuser if they tell – there are some signs that they may exhibit.
- Fear of that person or place where the abuser occurred, sometimes a child may fear a certain gender or people with similar attributes/behaviors
- Child is overly obedient (possibly not just with their abuser), child may be under the control of their abuser – not allowed to socialize with others
- Nightmares or bedwetting
- Over-dressing and/or demanding extreme privacy when changing or using the bathroom A child may want to wear extra underwear or dress in baggy clothes to cover their body to minimize attention and increase protection from an abuser
- Fear for their family or other loved ones, becoming clingy, not wanting to be alone, lacking confidence in new situations
- Self-soothing behaviors – thumbsucking, rocking, needing a comfort blanket/animal
- Running away
A very common but arguably not as often associated with abuse as it should, children that are burdened with the secret of abuse yet feel they cannot disclose (or have disclosed and were not helped), will resort to various forms of aggressive or destructive behavior – toward themselves and/or others. As adults, it’s important to remember that behavior is communication, and that it is important to understand and address ‘why’ this behavior exists. A child acting out because of abuse that is punished for their behavior will likely only grow to become more agitated.
- Aggression toward others, animals, or destruction of property
- Self harm – cutting, hair pulling
- Anger directed toward those they feel should be protecting them – ex. a child may claim his parents don’t love him because they do not suspect anything
Depression & Low Self Esteem
Depending on the child’s understanding of abuse, if the abuse is continual, and how long they have kept the abuse a secret – feelings of shame, guilt, and lost sense of self worth will begin to impact their daily life. Those who know the child may notice a sudden or a gradual decline in their mental health:
- Withdrawal from friends, family, schoolwork and activities they once enjoyed
- Sleeping often throughout the day
- Talks in a disparaging way about themselves
- Drawn to friendships/relationships where they are mistreated
- Substance abuse
- Suicide/attempted suicide
Because abuse directly affects a child’s growing brain it may impact their ability to function in ways people may not expect. Post traumatic stress disorder can be misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder, and if doctors and psychologists are not aware of the possible overlap of symptoms, a child in need of help may instead be put on a medication to reduce the ‘symptoms’ of their trauma. Children that experience abuse will struggle with trust, how to identify safe and unsafe situations, and simply cannot process the trauma without help. They may develop nervous ticks, come off as distracted, or unsettled. A child may strive to counteract this loss of control in their life by overcompensating in other ways..
- Striving for perfection in school or extra curricular activities/sports
- Developing an eating disorder
- Excessively washes self or other compulsive behavior
- Struggling to focus in school or in regular conversation
- Becomes easily startled and may become emotional
Depending on the child’s age, they may exhibit signs of knowledge about sex beyond their age. Older children may become promiscuous, seeking numerous sexual situations as a means of gaining control of their sexuality, because they interpret sexual performance with self worth, or because they feel that they are only worth being used by others for sex. Some may avoid romantic relationships, intimacy, and sexual interaction but there is no one ‘right’ way for a child to respond.
- Young children talking sexually, kissing with open mouth/tongue, acting out sexually with oneself, others, with toys, in drawings etc
- Children that compulsively masturbate, exhibit signs of pornography addiction
- Children that openly and/or frequently perform sex acts with their peers or adults, possibly prostituting themselves or falling prey to a trafficker
Sexual abuse is, surprising to many, often lacking in physical symptoms. Sadly, this can make prosecution challenging. Many doctors are not adequately trained to properly identify abuse – there are specialized pediatric-SANE (sexual assault nurse examiners) that work at hospitals or in connection with a child advocacy center. Signs are most often seen in younger children and can include:
- Abrasions, redness, swelling, bruising or itching of the genitals, anus or the mouth
- Urinary tract infection, sexually transmitted disease
Other Signs Due to Stress
- Stomach aches
- Panic Attacks
When Children Want to Tell
Disclosing sexual abuse is not easy, especially when a child is old enough to understand that it’s not right, and sometimes more difficult as time passes and the child struggles with feelings of shame and embarrassment. Young children may tell and not be understood or believed, and others may drop subtle ‘hints’ hoping that someone may ask questions, helping them gauge what the person’s reaction may be and if they will be believed.
- A ten year old boy that told his mother his butt was hurting when he’d go to the bathroom, he would later disclose to friends at school that he had been raped
- A girl who told her mother that her teenage male cousin was ‘weird’, it would take more than ten years for her and her sister to tell that he had been molesting them during family gatherings
- A young girl who told her parents that her uncle touched her cookie – it would turn out that ‘cookie’ was a word he had taught her to call her vulva.
When a Child Recants a Disclosure
Have we mentioned that disclosing abuse is hard? It’s even harder when a child faces not being believed, the fear of reporting, and the backlash of people who are ‘inconvenienced’ by such a disclosure. Allegations will inevitably affect the accused’s job, personal life, and the entire social dynamic of the community. If the offender is well respected and connected, it will likely make it even more painful for the child and those that believe.
Out of all sexual offenders, very few will be reported to the authorities, even less will be charged, and only a small fraction of all abusers will face a conviction – yet, it has been estimated that less than 1% of sexual abuse disclosed by children is false.
Cases that involve custody disputes are often handled in family court, and do not receive the same type of investigation as non-custodial offenders. Children and non-offending parents in such cases rely on social workers and have to pay for their own legal representation and expert analysis by therapists or guardian ad litems (GALs). There is growing evidence that non-offending parents are systematically being suspected of ‘parental alienation‘, which has resulted in children being put in to the custody of the offending parent.
Talking about body safety – with our kids and the people we trust is not just a good idea, it’s essential. With sexual abuse at epidemic levels and nearly all offenders being people known to the child, often a family member and/or a juvenile, it is likely that we all know multiple survivors of child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse happens in loving families, in nice communities, in top-rated school systems – perpetrated by some of the most respected members of society. Just as there is no typical way for a child to react to abuse, there are no ‘typical’ offenders, either.
Know the risk, talk about body safety – with kids and other adults.
Speak up when a situation puts a child at risk. Believe the child. Support the child – even when others would prefer to deny or minimize the impact of abuse. Report abuse.