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Child Sexual Abuse - Dealing with Child Sexual Abuse Disclosures

CHILD Protection & Child Rights » Vulnerable Children » Children's Issues » Child Sexual Abuse » Dealing with Child Sexual Abuse Disclosures

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- By Dr Shubhada Maitra *

Discussing issues related to child sexual abuse comes in the context of a discourse around sex, sexuality and related issues. Disclosures about CSA can never take place in a context where all discussions, questions, curiosity about sex and sexuality are thwarted or left unanswered with a 'you will know when you grow up' kind of a response. Following are some helpful ways in which discussions around 'taboo' topics and sexual abuse can be facilitated:

  • Use appropriate language and words for body parts. If a nose is a nose, ears are ears, hands are hands, why do we need nicknames for breasts, penis, vagina, buttocks, anus? Teach the child these words so that there is no hesitation or barrier in discussing sex related issues. If sexual abuse happens, the child will find it less difficult to share what happened if s/he has the language to describe the experience.
  • There is no perfect age to start 'educating' children about sex. When the child first pops the questions is the perfect time. Children as young as four may ask, 'how are babies born', 'where did I come from', 'when are you going to bring me a baby sister/ brother', 'why don't I have a younger sister/brother', 'will I be able to born children like you born me' and so on. Talk to the child in a way s/he will understand. Do not overload or under-load the child with information. In other words, share information in a manner the child will understand, giving too much or too little information will confuse the child. For example, at age 4 when the child asks any of the above questions, talking about sexual intercourse will surely be overloading. Telling the child that this is not the time to talk about such things, or that s/he will understand when s/he grows up or that s/he should go and play is under-loading. When my 4 year old son asked me the last question posed above, I simply said emphatically, "Yes, surely". He was happy and scampered off. A couple of years later he asked me whether he will be able to grow a baby inside his body like I grew him inside mine. And I said, 'No, because I have bag inside me in which you grew. You don't have that bag'. Again he asked no more and seemed satisfied with the response. It was at 9 years of age when we spoke of the ovum and the egg (thanks to his reading the Child craft series) and at 13 years of age he did not need information from me. But we continue to talk about sex, sexuality, condoms, love, responsibilities of a relationship and so on.
  • Remember, sex and sexuality education is an ongoing process, not a onetime activity. Keep your communication doors open for children to ask questions about these matters, whenever. There is no 'The End' to such conversations.
  • Do not change channels if an advertisement of a condom or a sanitary napkin suddenly comes up. Do not show your discomfort. Answer any queries if the child asks. Behave as normally as possible keeping your tone even.
  • If the child exhibits any age inappropriate sexual behavior or uses any inappropriate sexual language, do not reprimand the child. Instead it might be more helpful to ask, 'Where did you learn that from or where did you see/hear that?' Listen to the child patiently instead of panicking, expecting the worst.
  • Believe the child when the child discloses any discomforting incident with an adult or older child, no matter who that person is or what relationship you share with the person. When the abuser is someone close to the child, the child often wonders if what is happening is real or is the child only imagining things. The last thing the child who is abused needs is disbelief from the adult who the child/ adult survivor has gone for help.
  • A grandfather was abusing his granddaughter from age 7 to age 13 when she visited him during vacations. When she saw him turning his attention to her younger sister, she told her mother. The mother believed her daughter and never sent the two girls to the maternal grandparent's house again. A few years later she confronted her father about the abuse. Do not ever blame the child. Sexual abuse is never the child's fault. The child never invites or enjoys such attention. Take the example of a young 13 year old girl who was being abused by her maternal uncle. She was living with her maternal grandparents and their son, while her parents lived away for their work. One afternoon, the grandparents left home to visit someone, leaving the 13 year old girl alone with her maternal uncle who was 27 years old at the time. He threatened her and brought her in his room and was about to penetrate her anally when the grandmother arrived and saw what was happening. Instead of taking action against her son, the grandmother blamed the 13 year old for enticing her son into doing dirty things! The young girl could not convince her grandmother that in fact it was her son who had forced and threatened her into doing this. Do not offer excuses for the abuser's action.
  • Nothing justifies abuse of children. By finding reasons for the abuser's action, one is in fact only supporting the abuser. Once you know of the abuse, offer immediate emotional support to the child. Tell the child that you believe her/him. Tell the child that it was not her/his fault. Not taking any action also amounts to silently supporting the abuser. A girl who was being abused by her granduncle and uncles was distraught to see them visit her house time and again, despite her having shared it with her mother. Yet, women may not be able to take explicit action against the men in their life, given women's position in the society and family. Blaming the women for inaction or for not stopping the abuse is like taking the blame and attention away from the abuser. Women may find support from survivor groups, women's groups, child rights organizations, counselors, or organizations working on sexual abuse to plan appropriate action in such an instance. The child should be at the centre of any decisions made with respect to disclosures about abuse.
  • Do not minimize abusing by attributing it to child's fantasy or attention seeking behavior. Remember, it is extremely difficult for the child to disclose what is happening to her/him. Research shows that disclosures are almost always delayed, well into adulthood. When they do happen, it is important to acknowledge it as reality and the need to take action that conveys your support to the child.
  • Do not wait for problems to crop up if sexual abuse is disclosed.
  • Do not expect that the child will forget about what happened. See a child counselor or a mental health professional to begin some initial support to the child.
  • Do not ask the child to describe graphic details of the abuse. Let the child share as much as s/he is comfortable sharing. One doesn't need to know the details of what and how it happened. Focus on the child's emotions and listen intently to what the child is sharing. Do not ask victim-blaming questions like 'what were you doing there' or 'what were you wearing' or 'why did he do this to you''. Remember, there are no justifications for sexual abuse. Finally be alert.
  • Anyone can abuse a child. Teach children to come and talk to you if they feel uncomfortable about anything or if any touching that might happen to them-be it at home, in school, on the playground, in a place where people gather to pray, on the streets, in the bus. Let children know that a lot of unwanted touching happens, that it is never their fault and that they should come and share it with a caring adult.

* - Dr. Shubhada Maitra is currently Associate Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Health and Mental Health, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Deonar Mumbai. Her PhD thesis was on Mental Health Correlates of Child Sexual Abuse.

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