With all the recent press about the latest abuse scandal, parents have abuse on their mind. They worry- How would I know that my child is a victim? They feel powerless- How can I make sure my child is not abused?
Because most abuse is done behind closed doors, detection is a challenge. It is typical that a child does not tell, particularly about sexual abuse, on his own. He may be afraid [‘I’ll kill your father if you tell’] or embarrassed. But, a parent who is observant and in touch with his child is in a good position to recognize the signs.
A most telling and important sign of potential abuse is any change in your child’s behavior. The child may stop eating or overeat, have difficulty sleeping or new night terrors, cry, tantrum, become fearful or start taking risks. There may be toileting accidents or unexplained headaches and stomachaches. Your child might start feeling different to you – withdrawn or too loud, start failing school or become excessively studious, become heedless or overly perfectionistic. It is important to note that it is not the behavior that is of concern, but rather the fact that the behaviors represent a change in your child’s functioning. Of course there are many normal reasons for a change in a child’s behavior [like new baby or teacher, peer issues and more]. But, when all logical explanations fail, you want to investigate further.
If the abuse is of a chronic nature, not a recent occurrence, look not for a change in behavior, but rather for any behavior that is out of the ordinary or atypical for your child’s age and stage. The typical child is not anxious, depressed, or afraid of his own shadow. He does not have chronic school refusal or an inability to socialize with peers. Similarly, the relatively healthy child has reasonable self esteem and anger control. Typical teens do not have eating disorders. But, if your child manifests any of the above symptoms, you want to know why. While each of the above conditions warrant attention in their own right, they become particularly significant if they represent your child’s reaction to a threat to his well-being.
Though we would all love to protect our children from harm, the truth is, that we cannot always be there with them. You need to teach your child to protect himself by instructing him, from a very young age, about safeguarding his body. Even a very young child can grasp the concept that his body is his and private, and as such must be treated with dignity and respect by everyone. Emphasize that no one has the right to hurt or invade the privacy of another’s body. Specify that this rule includes anyone and everyone that the child comes in contact with – from young to old.
And, most importantly, convey the urgency of your child telling you, or the adult on premises, what has occurred - as soon as possible. Stress that even if the aggressor threatens harm to the family if the child ‘tells’, you have the means and ability to protect your child and make sure it does not happen again. Children are often confused or frightened by the bad behavior of adults and don’t know how, or are too afraid, to begin talking about it. Sometimes the victim feels shame or self- blame and is reluctant to share the event, even with his parents. Often the aggressor convinces the child that no one will take his word against that of an adult. It is your job to assure your child beforehand that if anything upsetting were to happen to him, you need to know about it so you could make it stop. In addition, stress that there will be no repercussions from you or the aggressor for ‘telling.’ Emphasize that ‘telling’ is the basic safe response.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of developing a relationship where your child knows that you listen and take seriously what he has to say. In our busy lives, we so often listen with half an ear to our children’s words, failing to allow them to register with us. Or, we judge as in “How can you say that about so and so?’ We deny their truth, ‘You don’t really have a stomach ache,’ or ‘You don’t hate school’ so that they give up on us and don’t even try to communicate anymore. Listening means being open to what your child has to say, no matter how distasteful it is.
It means reading between the lines of your child’s utterances, rather than discounting them because you find them inappropriate. It means rewarding the child for communicating, but never turning on him and punishing him for what he has to say. When our children know that their words will be welcomed and be free of penalty, they will feel free to talk to us, even about the hard things.
We would all like to wave our magic wands and make the bad stuff go away, or at least hide under the covers and pretend that nothing can happen. However, denial is a gift bestowed only on children or the very naïve. As adults, we are ba’alei achrayis and it is our responsibility to ensure our children’s safety and well-being. By being proactive and sensitive, we can accomplish this goal without unnecessarily alarming our children or shattering their innocence.
Dr. Sara Teichman is a psychotherapist and family counselor- formerly of Los Angeles- currently in Lakewood, New Jersey. She maintains a private practice where she sees adults and families. Dr. Teichman can be reached at 323 940 1000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.