No parent wants to hear that their child has been abused. There is a profound fear in even thinking about what one might do if it is disclosed that their child was sexually abused. While it can be assumed that most might be able to identify the first few steps in addressing this kind of issue, it is likely that few parents or guardians would fully know what to expect when it comes to the longer process toward recovery, not just for the child in question, but also for themselves.
Before this article can proceed, one thing needs to to be made very clear: A child cannot consent to any sexual activity. This is not a point to be argued, rationalized, or debated. By definition, consent is to agree to do something or give permission for something to happen. Children can’t agree to do or give permission for something that they don’t understand; because children are still developing mentally, emotionally, and physically, they cannot comprehend the mental, emotional, and physical impacts of sexual activity, and therefore cannot consent to it.
Facts & Stats To Know:
- According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), every 9 minutes, a child is a victim of sexual assault.
- In 93% of cases, abuse is committed by someone known to the child.
- In 2020, of the 5,707 cases of non-consensual sex offences reported to law enforcement, half of the victims were under the age of 18.
- Of these cases (regarding minors) reported in 2020, 11 were from the 16th Judicial District (Bent, Crowley, Otero Counties).
It is important to be aware that sexual abuse against a child is not explicitly physical. While molestation most commonly comes to mind, RAINN indicates that child sexual abuse also includes:
- exhibitionism, or exposing oneself to a minor,
- masturbation in the presence of a minor,
- owning or sharing pornographic images or movies of children,
- obscene phone calls, texts, or digital interaction, or
- any other sexual conduct that is harmful to a child’s mental, emotional, or physical welfare.
While there is no 100% guaranteed way to protect a child from sexual abuse, there are steps a parent or guardian can take to potentially reduce the risk a child faces. Open communication, validation of a child’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, involvement in the child’s life, education about healthy boundaries, and being aware of warning signs of abuse are all ways to potentially prevent and/or lessen the impact of abuse. Other methods of working to protect a child includes creating a general safety plan, identifying trusted adults the child can talk to, and teaching the child about using 911 in emergencies.
Validation and open communication can be key factors in a child disclosing abuse. Healthy communication with the child creates an open door, wherein the child feels safe to talk about themselves, good or bad and know that how they feel is valid. By validating how the child may feel about things in their lives, you are letting the child know that you think they are important, and that you want to know about they think, feel, and experience. If a child does not believe that what they feel or think is important, or that they will get in trouble for being honest about their experiences, they may not feel safe to talk about abuse.
Being involved in a child’s life allows you to be aware of who they are with throughout their day, including other children, and adults such as teachers, coaches, and the parents of their friends. Utilizing healthy communication, the parent or guardian and the child can openly discuss interactions with these people, identify potentially unhealthy or manipulative behaviors, and help the child learn how to set boundaries for themselves moving forward. If a child knows that it is okay to say no to an adult or authority figure, especially if they are being made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, this could help protect them when the parent or guardian isn’t around.
Another part of building the child’s boundaries and their ability to say no for themselves comes from parents and guardians respecting the child’s feelings and boundaries. When a child lets us know they are uncomfortable interacting with someone, they should not be forced to do so. If a family member or friend requests a hug or a kiss from the child, but the child says they don’t want to, it is important to not force that child into submitting to such requests. Ignoring the child’s boundaries in this way sends the message that the child should give in to an adult’s requests for physical interaction, whether they are comfortable or not. This behavior can make them more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Understand that it is possible for a child to not to disclose to their parent or guardian, because the child may be concerned for your safety or your feelings, and may believe not telling you is protecting you. However, by ensuring that the child has a good support system of trusted adults they can talk to may make it more likely that they ultimately disclose to someone in that support system, so the process of addressing that trauma can begin.
Sexual abuse is a traumatic event. When a child becomes a victim of sexual violence, they become more likely to experience a range of emotional, mental, and physical effects, including depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders. Child sexual abuse victims are also more likely than their peers to participate in risky and unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse. Without the appropriate intervention and support, these issues can likely impact a child into their adulthood.
Seeking support and counseling as part of the process of recovery can be very important, not just for the child, but also for the parents or guardians. Reaching out to local victim services can help give information on what the parent or guardian’s options are moving forward, including reporting to law enforcement, seeking specialized forensic interviews and exams, obtaining civil protection orders, and seeking counseling for the child and the family.
As vital as it is to address the needs of the child to help them recover from the violence they have experienced, it is just as essential for the parents or guardians to acknowledge and address their own feelings about what has occurred. Recognize that anger, confusion, sadness, and guilt are all normal emotions for the abnormal experience you and the child are going through, and just as you are validating the child’s feelings, you can seek validation for your own. Remember that healthy anger doesn’t harm yourself, others, or property, and that you can focus that anger toward the family’s safety and seeking justice.
It is not yours or the child’s fault that this violence has occurred.
If your family has been impacted by sexual abuse, or you have questions on how to further prevent sexual abuse from occurring, please do no hesitate to reach out. AVRC Staff are available 24/7 to support you.
415 Colorado Avenue, La Junta, CO 81050
TTY: (719) 384-1938
After Hours Colorado Relay dial 711 or 1-800-659-2656