Warning: This is a tough topic to read about, especially if you have experienced unresolved sexual abuse in the past. I do not want you to experience any triggers or additional trauma. Angela
In January, I started a series focused on the sexual exploitation of children. First I touched on protecting your children from “stranger danger”. The second in the series was the very real and growing threat of child sex trafficking. The “monsters” were nameless, faceless predators driven by compulsion to cause harm to children.
But what if the Monster is not a stranger? The hardest truth to accept, by far, is that someone you trust and care for can hurt your child. We just don’t want to believe it, talk about it or even acknowledge that it occurs. I have put off writing about familial sexual abuse for fear of re-traumatizing past victims or causing shame and blame on those who “didn’t see.” However, being silent, avoiding an uncomfortable topic, just perpetuates the cycle of secrecy. Familial abuse cannot be ignored.
Because it happens.
More than you care to know.
First, let’s just discuss the statistics: 1 in 3 girls will have experience some type of molestation before the age of 18. The statistics on boys vary, mainly due to the low incidence of reporting. But most studies estimate the percentage of sexual abuse of boys to be as high as 1 in 6. Those are unbelievable, (hard to wrap your mind around) statistics. Even harder to reconcile is the statistic that 50% of molestation of a child under the age of 6, is perpetrated by a family member.
How can this Be?
Historically, it was believed that all perpetrators of sexual abuse were, themselves, abused as children. However, multiple recent studies show that the correlation is not as prevalent as once thought. There is strong empirical evidence supporting the fact that males who were sexually abused in childhood are more likely to abuse children when they become an adult than males who were not abused. However, not all males who were abused became offenders. In fact, In some studies, the percentage of male sexual abuse victims offending as an adult was only 25% (compared to 11% for males who were not molested as children). So breaking it down, 1 in 4 males who were abused as children become adult offenders. Three out of the same four do not. Even more significant are the findings that less than 5% of women who were molested, became adult offenders of sexual abuse. However, women who were molested as children, often became mothers of children who were victimized. I will unpack that later.
Familial Child Abuse is a secret: the dirty laundry that you are always warned “not to air.” Whole families can be victimized by hierarchial abuse or it could be confined to just a select few. In most cases, there are some in the family who suspect it, know about it or close their mind to it. And we, the general public, cannot understand why they don’t (neither the victim nor the non offending parent) tell”. Unless you have lived it, I ask you not to judge. There are many different reasons not to tell.
At 13, Jenny was pretty and popular: the star volleyball player for her JV team at Middle School. Her life was good. She enjoyed being a part of a loving family: her father,a good christian man, led their family in morning devotions. He doted on her and her little brother. Jenny’s mom was a stay-at-home mom who always brought cookies and cupcakes to school for her birthdays and worked the concession stand during games. She had the best life! Until one night when her mom and brother were at a soccer game, her father walked into her room and raped her. There was no grooming. It was rape. Afterwards, he cried, begged her to forgive him and pray with him. She did. Things went “almost” back to normal…like nothing ever happened. Until, several months later, it happened again. This time, when her dad exited her room, she ran out of the house to a neighbor, who called the police.
During the investigation, an investigative worker asked Jenny, why she didn’t say anything the first time. Without pausing, she replied, “He was my dad. I loved him.”
That statement may seem strange, but to her it was so simple. As a devoted family man, her dad had built a solid bond of trust and attachment to his children. So much so, that Jenny believed him when he said it would never happen again. Until it did.
And Jenny’s mom, although devastated upon hearing of the incident, believed her daughter. Confronting her husband, he admitted to the acts, and claimed he had been taken over by the devil. She kicked him out of the house, cutting off all ties until he eventually went to prison. But in her counseling sessions, she confided to her therapist that she was having trouble letting go. She asked “How do you just stop loving someone who has been your world for 20 years? I will never forgive him. I will never allow him back in my life. But I still love him” She made the physical break, but not the emotional one.
There were professionals ready to judge her harshly for her honesty. How can we understand the deep impact and trauma caused by the breaking of that most sacred trust and protection that you expect from those you love? In later sessions, Jenny’s mother unlocked the story of her own abuse by her Uncle Grady. She had endured his touching for years, telling no-one. The puzzle started coming together.
In my years as an investigator, I would be asked, “How can you tell if someone is a pedophile?”
There is no mark of Cain on their forehead. Until they are caught victimizing someone, they could look like you, or me, or Uncle Grady. So how do you protect your children from victimization?
The most important thing I can say to you is examine your own past.
Remember the statistics I cited above? Women who were molested as children, often become parents of children who are molested. This is not an absolute, but it is a common thread. Now before you go reading into that, lets look at it. We all are products of our upbringing in some way. Often, we parent as we have been parented. Women who are victimized as children, and have not dealt with that abuse, statistically are more likely to be in relationships where there is either domestic violence or child abuse. Somewhere in their minds, the behavior is familiar, and by suppressing their own experiences, don’t see the signs around them, or they do see the signs, but have been programmed to stay quiet. I have seen these moms find creative ways to protect their children without reporting the abuse. They love their children. They just have no one to trust, because they were betrayed by those they trusted at an early age.
Then there are those in denial. Countless times have I heard a defensive parent claim, “I was sexually abused, so I would know if my children were. They would come to me.” I try to gently talk them through their own experience, helping them to remember the reasons that they never told, and drawing the correlation between what happened to them to what happened to their children. Usually at that point, their understanding comes. Then comes the guilt and shame, which we work through together.
Victims deserve no blame. No shame. But they wear it like an albatross around their shoulders, even as children. Their minds cannot grasp why the person they loved and trusted would hurt them like this. The lesson taught to all kids at an early age is that they are punished when they do bad things. So in a desperate effort to understand what is happening to them and why, their brain searches for someone to blame, assigning it to themselves. It was their fault. Guilt, is another reason that victims do not tell.
How do you protect your children from falling victim to abuse by someone they know and trust?
You taught them to stay away from strangers. You did drills involving not following the man who claims to have candy or to have lost his puppy. You developed a code word that signifies who they can leave with. But none of those lessons pertain to their cousin John, their step-brother or the scout leader. And you don’t want to scare them or make them suspicious and fearful of everyone. So what do you do?
Talk to your kids.
Honestly and Often.
Establish a very honest, open communication system starting as early as possible. Build in the trust and attachment necessary that will have them come to you whenever they are in harms way; even from a loved one. Give them permission to talk to you about anything, with the caviat that you will listen without anger or blame. You are not promising that they will not get consequences for poor choices, but you are offering to be a sounding board with understanding. When you talk with them about good and bad touches, make sure they understand that you want to know if anyone touches them, not just strangers. Let them know you love them, believe them and will always choose them
I sincerely hope that everyone reading this post can say that nothing written above pertains to them and to their family. If that is true, be grateful as you are blessed.
But, I would not be true to my calling, if I didn’t offer some resources to those who might have seen a little something in the words that caused them to feel unease or discomfort. There are numerous resources all over the United States and in every country for those who have been or are being victimized.
Below are some resource numbers for the US and Canada. For other countries, look up your child abuse hotline number or state crisis line to be directed to someone with whom you can talk privately and safely.
Phone: 800.4.A.CHILD (800.422.4453)
People They Help: Child abuse victims, parents, concerned individuals
Child Sexual Abuse
Darkness to Light
Phone: 866.FOR.LIGHT (866.367.5444)
People They Help: Children and adults needing local information or resources about sexual abuse
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Phone: 800.799.SAFE (800.799.7233)
Video Phone Only for Deaf Callers: 206.518.9361
People They Help: Children, parents, friends, offenders
Help for Parents
National Parent Helpline®
Phone: 855.4APARENT (855.427.2736) (available 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., PST, weekdays)
People They Help: Parents and caregivers needing emotional support and links to resources
National Human Trafficking Hotline
People They Help: Victims of human trafficking and those reporting potential trafficking situations
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Phone: 800.950.NAMI (800.950.6264) (available 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., ET, weekdays)
People They Help: Individuals, families, professionals
Child Find of America
Phone: 800.I.AM.LOST (800.426.5678)
People They Help: Parents reporting lost or abducted children, including parental abductions
Child Find of America—Mediation
Phone: 800.A.WAY.OUT (800.292.9688)
People They Help: Parents (abduction, prevention, child custody issues)
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Phone: 800.THE.LOST (800.843.5678)
People They Help: Families and professionals (social services, law enforcement)
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
Phone: 800.656.HOPE (800.656.4673)
People They Help: Rape and incest victims, media, policymakers, concerned individuals