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CHILD Protection & Child Rights » Vulnerable Children » Children's Issues » Child Sexual Abuse » The Child - A Traumatized Victim

- By Jaya Aiyappa *

"My mom would drop me off in the evening with her older sister (my aunt) to spend the night while she would go out. In most cases, this would be a safe haven babysitter for a child, Right? Wrong! My cousin was 18/19 years old at the time and addicted to drugs. In the small house in which they lived, I was always put in the cousin's bed to go to sleep prior to him getting home from a "night out". I vividly remember the first time it happened. I went to bed, asleep by myself - 6 years old - only to be woken up by being raped by my cousin. I remember having my face shoved into a pillow so my screams and cries for help wouldn't be heard by anyone. When it was over, I was told if I ever mentioned it to anyone, he would kill me - and I believed him."

I was eight when it happened. My older brother had made a bet with me and I won. He said I got to pick a dare. I thought it would be funny if I saw his underwear and sung the song "I see London, I see France, I see your underpants". He said we'd do it later. Next thing I know he's in my room when I was getting ready for bed and he said I'll show you mine if you show me yours. I said "That's not fair, but he insisted I do it, and I did. The next night he came in my room while I was in bed and he reached down my pants touching me. I kept my eyes shut because I thought it would help me escape. For many weeks it would happen sometimes randomly, but then every night. He touched me, and took my hand and made me hold and stroke his penis"

These are not random cases of CSA that have been mentioned. CSA is prevalent not just in India but all around the world in alarming figures. According to the first ever National Study on Child Abuse in April 2007, covering 13 states in India and a sample size of 12,446 children, a disturbing number of 53.3% children reported sexual abuse. The survey also found that boys and girls were equally at risk. The most frightening aspect was that 50% of the abusers were known to the children and the children trusted them.

Stages of Child Development

According to Erickson psycho social stages of development the child passes through various stages which help him to become mentally and emotionally strong as an adult. The major developmental task in infancy (0-1year) is to learn whether people, especially primary caregivers, regularly satisfy basic needs. If caregivers are consistent sources of food, comfort, and affection, an infant learns trust- that others are dependable and reliable. If they are neglectful, or perhaps even abusive, the infant instead learns mistrust- that the world is an undependable, unpredictable, and possibly dangerous place. From 2-3 years if caregivers demand too much, ridicule early attempts at self-sufficiency, children may instead develop shame and doubt about their ability to handle problems. During 4-5 years the children are realizing for themselves if they are good or bad and may develop guilty feelings for actions for which they feel they are to blame. The later stages (6-11 years), help the child develop a sense of worth self confidence, a sense of loyalty, his identity and purpose in life (12-19 years). However these ages are not fixed and can overlap and gratification in each stage effects the development of the other.

Any trauma or distress during any of the stages can result in the child being maladjusted or having a problem in some sphere of his life. CSA always impacts a child but in varying degrees. Childhood is the stage when our personalities and beliefs are being formed and any trauma at this stage does impact the psychological and emotional development. No child can be unaffected by the abuse. However not all are affected to the same degree. A child who is severely abused over many years may be affected differently from a child who has been abused once. Also a child who has been abused by a person whom he trusts and loves would be affected differently from a child abused by a stranger.

Indicators of abuse

There is no one single identifiable sign or symptom that all children will have. They may have very subtle or very pronounced symptoms. Most often the abusers are known to the children so there is little or no use of force. Hence the physical evidence of abuse becomes difficult to spot. There may be urinary infections, bleeding from the vagina or anus, STDs, pain in genitals specially during urination, difficulty in walking or sitting, throat infection (due to oral sex) or pregnancy.

Behavioural changes in the child may be subtle or very prominent but will always be there. Children often do not tell with words that they have been sexually abused. Usually a child hardly talks about his abuse and even if s/he does, no one takes him seriously and that further creates more problems in the child increasing his feelings of shame, guilt and the feeling that he is responsible for the abuse. A child could show any of the followings symptoms, but having any, does not necessarily mean the child is abused. The reason for the behaviour must be explored.

  • Waking up in the night screaming, nightmares or other sleeping problems
  • Showing an unusual fear of certain people, places or things
  • A reluctance to be with a certain person
  • Loss of appetite or trouble eating, eating disorders
  • Fear of the bathroom
  • Excessive crying, depression, anxiety
  • Mood changes, anger outbursts or withdrawal or fear
  • Becomes worried when clothing is removed
  • Wearing layers of clothing to hide injuries or provocative clothing
  • Knowledge of sex which is age inappropriate
  • Imitating sexual acts with other children or toys, such as dolls
  • Withdrawing from activities they used to be involved in
  • Academic problems
  • Lowered self esteem
  • Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder such as panic attacks
  • Regressive behaviour like bedwetting (after being potty trained)
  • Having new words for private body parts
  • Excessive masturbation, addiction problems.

Any sudden changes in the behaviour of the child along with physical symptoms must be taken seriously and is a warning signal. It is necessary for the primary caretaker to be vigilant and alert to any changes in the behaviour of the child and also to be aware of what the child may be trying to convey verbally though indirectly. One common feeling that most children and adolescents have is of guilt and shame. Children usually feel a sense of guilt over the abuse that occurred. It is important to remember that under no circumstance is the child ever responsible for what happened to them. There is a sense of betrayal as the abuse is often by a person whom they trust and love. It is crucial that "re- victimization" does not happen.

Some ways a child can be re- victimized is by saying to the child: "Uncle, or Grandpa would never do that to you, why are you lying?" or "It couldn't have been that bad or you would have told me sooner".

The Silent Problem

As we can see that the children are traumatized so why is it that they still don't tell and talk about their abuse. Especially in India, the children are taught to respect their elders come what may, the elders know what is good for you and they are never wrong.

Other reasons why the children keep quiet is because of their relationship with the offender, they do not want to put the abuser into trouble, their sense of loyalty towards the abuser or at times even to protect another who is not an abuser. The child is confused between the behaviours of the adult who is caring at times and abusive otherwise and hence cannot distinguish who the real adult is. Abusers may offer a combination of gifts and threats about what will happen if the child refuses or tells someone. Threats include physical threats or what will be lost in the form of family breaking up. The child's fear is played upon by the abuser. At times the child may experience a physical pleasure or arousal and this confusion makes it difficult for the child to speak up. Very often the child thinks he is to blame for being bad and is being punished this way. He is too ashamed or embarrassed to tell anyone. He feels no one will believe him. The reasons may differ depending on the age of the child at the time of abuse and who the abuser is.

Consequences of CSA

Child sexual abuse victims usually carry this trauma with them for the rest of their lives. Depending on the seriousness, duration and type of abuse, the effects can vary in intensity but mostly do affect all victims in some aspect of their lives and are manifested in psychological, social, sexual or physical problems. I realize that I build walls between myself and people who love me, including my wife - it's the only way I know to protect myself from getting hurt.

I don't know how to let someone love me. My wife has gotten tired of running into that wall. I realize that the long term affects of child abuse has caused me to form defensive personality traits which make it difficult to have adult relationships. I feel as though I am damaged, I have no self esteem / confidence, everyone else is "better" than me. My life has been moulded by the abuse and hurt I suffered as a child and I make those around me miserable as a result.

Psychologically the person can report panic attacks, depression, fears, panic attacks, sleeping problems, nightmares, irritability, outbursts of anger and sudden shock reactions when being touched. They have low self esteem and little confidence and respect in themselves. They may resort to self destructive behaviours like addictions, prostitution. Socially they are not able to trust others and do not have satisfying relationships. They may deliberately get into relationships where they will be abused as they see themselves as .damaged goods.. Sexually they may not want to be touched as it brings back memories, or have problems with pain and orgasms or be averse to any particular act like oral sex. This affects relationships as the partner does not understand what is happening.

Many psychosomatic illnesses may occur which could include eating disorders, inexplicable aches and pains and may suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

Role of a Trusted Adult

The foremost thing that an adult can do is to believe the child. Children rarely make up stories about sexual abuse. However vague or imaginative the narration may be, the child is entrusting you with a part of himself that is sore, painful and terrifying and embarrassing. Let the child know that you are willing to listen patiently to whatever the child has to say however painful it may be. Here is a person the child can trust, feel understood and not betrayed. Validate the child's feelings of anger, pain, fear, helplessness as the child needs to express them and be heard. Be genuine in your response even if it is of outrage but do not make your feelings overwhelm the child's. If for some reason you are unable to handle it and are extremely upset or defensive, it may be from a feeling you have repressed from the past, in which case you can encourage the child to speak with someone else whom they see as trustworthy.

Most importantly, view the person as someone strong who has come for help rather than as a victim. It is important for the child to be helped to overcome the abuse by trained professionals who in an unthreatening atmosphere help the child to regain control over his life. This is done through various play methods or through the creative arts like dance, drama or drawing. No child should be made to go through the trauma and suffer all his life for a fault which is not his.

Parents/teachers need to educate the child about CSA, how to prevent it and what the child needs to do. They need to be given age appropriate sex education and explained about appropriate touch and inappropriate touch. Remember - No child seduces an abuser. Children ask for attention and affection not abuse.

* - Mrs. Jaya Aiyappa completed her MSW from Delhi University. Since 2008, she has been working with the Women Graduates Union as a counselor. In her position she handles personal counseling and individual clients as well as conducts Workshops and Seminars for men, women and adolescents.