When The Words Can't Come Out - Behavior Often, But Not Always, Speaks
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
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 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Abrasions, redness, swelling, bruising or itching of the genitals, anus or the mouth
- Urinary tract infection, sexually transmitted disease
- Stomach aches
- Panic Attacks
When Children Want to Tell
- 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
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.
Know the risk, talk about body safety - with kids and other adults.
Pay attention to situations that give offenders opportunity. Look for potential signs of abusers and abuse in children.
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.