There are many times when I am talking to groups of people about the issue of childhood sexual abuse that this question is asked: “Why don’t children tell someone what has happened to them?” Sometimes it is hard for adults to understand why a child who has been hurt by somebody doesn’t let someone else know so that they can be protected. The answers to this question are many, and they are complex.
Some children don’t tell because they don’t perceive that there is anyone to tell who would help them. Sad, but true. Only one in 10 children tell about what has happened to them. That means that of the 330 children we saw last year, we likely could have seen around 3,000.
Many times children are threatened that if they tell , either they or some other family member would be hurt or killed. Living with fear is a terrible thing. Many adults wouldn’t tell either if they were threatened in this manner.
Perpetrators are masters of manipulation. They will frequently convince the child that they themselves are at fault and that they deserved or even wanted the abuse to occur. They convince the children that they are bad and broken and that no one would believe them anyway. Too often, children are not believed. They may tell and not be believed and therefore, are not likely to tell again.
Also tragic is the child who may only receive attention from the person who abuses them. Imagine that there is literally no one else to turn to. What is a child to do? Or, it may be that the child tells one parent and that parent convinces them that they should not tell anyone because the abuser is the only source of income that the family has. What a bind for a child to be in. The very person that they turn to for help is trapping them in a life of abuse and shame and is not willing to stand up for them.
In other instances, the child who is being abused is very protective of the non-offending parent and does not want to tell them because it would upset this parent. While dealing with their own emotional pain and fear, they are still thinking of someone who they love and do not want to hurt. When a child begins telling what has happened to them, they will often test the waters, to gauge what the person’s reaction is to what they are saying. If the adult reacts too negatively or emotionally about what the child is saying, then the child shuts down, vowing not to say another word about their abuse to avoid more conflict and confusion. They may prefer to stay in the abusive home than to risk removal to a place that is unfamiliar to them.
No one wants to believe that sexual and physical abuse of children would occur. It is indeed a very horrific reality. But it does happen every day to children in our town. So what if we suspect that abuse may be happening, but we are not really sure, what then? You are not supposed to do your own investigation. In fact, that is not what the authorities want you to do. But, you are morally responsible for speaking up for children who don’t have a voice. If you are truly concerned about a child, call law enforcement or the Department of Social Services and make a report. Let the people who are charged with investigative responsibility do their jobs to check things out.
So what can we do as adults to assure that children reach out to us? We build a positive relationship with our children and we tell them that, if anything is happening to upset them that we want to know what it is. We let them know that it is not okay for anyone to touch the private parts of their body or for an adult to ask them to touch their private body parts. We tell them that if this happens, or they are afraid it might happen, then they can say “no” and that they should let you or another trusted adult know what is happening. We ask them if anyone has told them to keep a secret and then we help them understand what kind of secrets are okay and what kind are not. Then we listen calmly and with compassion. We take the time to be there and to check in with them. We let them know they are not at fault. We do not ask leading questions or in any way make suggestions that someone may have done something to them.
It is much more common for a child not to tell than it is to tell about sexual abuse. So listen, pay attention, be supportive and give our children a voice.
For more information on child sexual abuse prevention training, call the Child Advocacy Center at 644-5100.
Gayle Lofgren is the executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Aiken County.