Part 1: This is going to be a series of blog posts that speak to parents of children who have been sexually abused. Firstly, if this relates to you, I want to say that I am so sorry, my heart goes out to you and your child. No parent ever wants to hear that it has happened. Also, I want you to know that it is not your fault. You did everything you could to protect your child at the time. My parents where probably one of the most cautious people, and yet it still happened to me in my own home. What’s important now is to focus on your child and how to help them feel validated, heard, and understood.
Now, I am not a therapist, psychiatrist, or doctor. All of these insights and tips are things I had wish I had known as well as my parents had. My goal here is to help families have the healing process be as uncomplicated as possible. This is a grave and serious topic in which the healing process often takes years. This first post in the series is about understanding the signs and symptoms of trauma in your child. I believe this is important to start with because oftentimes symptoms of trauma can be mistaken as behavioral problems or mental illness. Some children have been misdiagnosed (including myself) and/or put on medication for something that was a symptom of trauma. (The next blog post will be about deciding whether to or not to introduce medications to your child. That post won’t be a concrete yes or no opinion, but rather things that are incredibly important to keep in mind if choosing this route. Trust me, knowing these things will save your child, time, etc. Stay tuned for next week’s post regarding medication.)
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
One thing to know about kids before going into this is that they do not have the vocabulary, education, experience, understanding, or knowledge that you do. However, I am not saying children are not smart. In fact, I personally believe that children use certain parts of the brain more than we do. They have such a fresh perspective of life which allows them to be more open to learning without judgment. Yet, this also is what can become a problem if they have experienced abuse. Depending on the situation and who the abuser is, children sometimes see the abuser in a different light than the rest of the world. This is because predators are like con artists. Most of the time, it is someone the child knows. They are manipulative and will create this false perception of what the abuse is. Meaning, oftentimes abusers will try to create a situation where the child depends on them or trusts them so that it taints the child’s perspective of what is really going on and therefore wouldn’t tell another adult because they’d fear hurting the abuser or breaking or losing that bond. I know it is painful to read and hear, but this is important to know when you are trying to talk to your child.
There are many reasons why children do not say anything. Most don’t. The reason above is one of them, but there are a few other reasons. One of them is that the abuser may live in the household, or is a relative. It’s hard for children to speak up against someone in the family or community that may be highly thought of by everyone else. Another reason is that children may not understand what happened. I was six years old when I was abused, and I did not know or understand what rape was. Therefore, I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding of what occurred to directly tell my parents right after it happened. I just knew something “bad” happened.
When a child doesn’t report the abuse, that doesn’t mean there are no other clear signs that may appear. Many times, these symptoms show up as behavioral problems or acting out. If the parent doesn’t know what occurred and then punish the child for these actions that are just trauma manifestations, this affects the child on so many levels.
I am not saying that all of these actions mean that your child has been abused, but if you suspect or know they have, then look out for these symptoms because they are not your child “Acting Out.”
Avoiding physical touch of any kind. If your child seems agitated or resistant towards hugs or honestly anything along the lines of that, do not tell them to “toughen up,” “you’re fine,” or tell them that you are safe and not going to hurt them. Right now, they don’t need rationalization, they need their boundaries respected. (Trust isn’t rebuilt by words, it is rebuilt by action.)
Avoiding certain people, places, groups, or events. This includes church, school, tutoring, dance classes, or sports practice. Sometimes the people, places, or things that a child survivor avoids may not be directly related (yet oftentimes is) it can also be a trigger that reminds them of the abuse, not even tangible triggers but also, emotional ones. So, instead of immediately reacting when your child seems to be defiant, become observant because learning about the fears is how you will learn how to help your child. There were so many times where my parents thought I was being difficult and was punished for it, when in fact I was terrified to go certain places or see certain people out of pure fear. (This was mostly within the first year after the abuse, where I’d get panic attacks yet seemed like tantrums. Again, this is not blaming them, they didn’t know right away and had no background or experience in mental health.)
Behavioral changes. Eating less or more, suddenly seems shyer, jumps at sudden movements or sounds, being more agitated, doing obsessive-compulsive behaviors, controlling, tantrums, avoidant actions, and most of all: seeming more on edge, highly sensitivity, and dissociating (which looks like daydreaming.) The body doesn’t feel like a safe place to live after rape. It’s constant extreme discomfort, unease, and yet there’s no escape. In ways to compensate, the child will try to make everything feel safe around them. This will appear as children exhibiting disordered eating habits, saying that certain clothes feel “too tight” or “too loose,” being startled at loud sounds, or extreme responses or freeze responses when people exhibit strong emotions. The year after the abuse, I would take up to three showers a day. At the time, my parents thought it was absurd and obviously, didn’t allow me to when I tried. So just keep in mind to look out for behaviors such as that. The mind isn’t the only thing that is affected. After trauma, the body is still constantly in alert, fight or flight mode. Many kids appear and are highly sensitive, especially to other people’s emotions. (In some cases, if the abuser was someone the child knew, they may have had to scan the abuser’s emotional state and try to respond or act a certain way to not get hurt. That is why many trauma survivors can sense the emotions of others well but often neglect their own.) I have ADHD and PTSD, so it was hard to tell the difference between having a hard time focusing, and dissociating. Internally, there is a clear difference. But if you find your child zoning out often, especially in moments of high stress, it can be either or. This is where professional help is important. Also, here is an article that talks about ADHD and Trauma.
Chances are, your child has a limited vocabulary regarding the topic of sexual abuse. They are not going to know how to explain what happened. From personal experience, having parents asking open-ended questions felt frustrating because I could not find the right words to describe it. On the other hand, I have read many articles that said to ask open-ended questions. So, it all depends on the child. Try both and observe how they respond. In my case, it was difficult to put my thoughts into words, and I’d shut down, cry, and become frustrated. If this relates to your child-Instead of asking broad questions like, “Why do you feel sad?” Try asking either more specific questions (even if they say reply “no” to the question, it narrows the answers down and helps the child narrow it down in their mind) or by asking physically related questions, such as where did you get hurt, etc. Oftentimes, they’ll be able to answer the more physical related questions regarding how they felt, instead of the emotional aspects of the abuse. Here is a link to discussing the abuse with your child, based on their age.
Here is a helpful description of a common way children will try to say that they have been abused. This is from Dr. Laurie Braga’s testimony where she talks about certain techniques she uses when interviewing children of sexual abuse. (Link to interview)
“In the course of your interview of thousands of kids, three or four hundred alleged victims of sexual abuse and one hundred confirmed victims of sexual abuse, have you noticed a common pattern of disclosure of the sexual abuse event by children?
Yes. I have seen a common thread, a common pattern of how children disclose. They typically will start off by saying — either by saying nothing happened or they will say something happened, but they will either say the least of what happened, or they will say something happened, but it was just some other kid, or something happened and that they saw it. Then they will gradually, as they become more comfortable, they will begin to open up more and say what happened, actually what happened to them, “This is what actually what happened to me,” and gradually, as they become more comfortable, they will build up to the worst of what happened to them, especially anything that they feel personally responsible for, as if they themselves were a partner in the crime and did something real bad. Then after having disclosed, if they [are] then met with openness and comfortableness, from someone else, say their parents, then they will continue to open up and continue to tell what happened. If they are met with, “I don’t want to hear this stuff,” or they are with a person who is in an adverse position to them who is sort of saying to them, “Well, this didn’t really happen, did it?” they will then retract what they said, take it back and say, “No, it didn’t really happen,” or of they don’t completely take it back, they will say the things that are the easiest and not the hardest to talk about.”
It is important to address the trauma before coming to conclusions about any other mental health disorder. If a child is diagnosed with anxiety, depression, etc instead of addressing the trauma & PTSD that may be causing the anxiety, more symptoms will surface overtime because the real issue at hand is not being addressed. Anxiety and depression are symptoms of trauma and they are also diagnoses. An individual can have both or may have had one or the other before the trauma. But, just from personal experience, make sure you address the trauma first, and then co-existing disorders. Because even if you think one of the symptoms is “solved” (like anxiety & avoiding certain places or people) another one will surface. It will be like playing that game, “wack a mole” because the root of the issue isn’t being addressed. The trauma needs to be treated mentally and physically (I talk about the importance of healing the body in this post.) They must learn to emotionally regulate the emotions evoked from the trauma because (not to come across as extreme here, but this occurs all the time and also is from my personal experience) later on as the child gets older, they will try to learn to emotionally regulate these feelings themselves and sometimes, they are not always the best ways: substance abuse, co-dependency, eating disorders, hypersexuality, self-harm…)
If you are struggling to understand your child, I suggest taking them to see a therapist, social worker, etc. Try: “psychologytoday.com” if you have insurance. You can select your insurance, zip code, and trauma specialization in the search bar. Another tip if you decide to do this is to give time for your child to speak. In some cases where the child is quiet, many therapy sessions end up revolving around the parent’s perspective. Even though that is important too, talking for your child will end up being a disservice in the long run. It can lead to veering off the path of what may be going on within your child’s mind that they are hiding and that you are unaware of (and they also may be unaware.) It is the therapist’s job to help the child find ways to talk about the abuse.
This topic will go into next week’s post where I discuss the pros, cons, and things to know when thinking about medication. *This is not a all for medication and this is not an against medication post. It will be discussing things to keep in mind when considering it.