Adults can sometimes hurt children and youth in many ways. Sometimes the older child or a teenager hurts and abuses the younger child.
There are four forms of abuse: physical, emotional, sexual abuse, and neglect. In this text we will focus on the most frequent difficulties and questions children who experienced sexual abuse are coping with. We also know that children who were hurt in other ways also cope with these questions.
Abuse is sexual abuse when an adult uses the child to satisfy his/her sexual needs and achieve sexual pleasure. It includes various behaviours, including when someone is touching you in a way you do not like, kisses you on the mouth, touches your private parts, forces you to a sexual intercourse and other sexual acts, shows you pictures with sexual content, asks to take your photo, or does anything which makes you feel uncomfortable and embarrassed.
Both boys and girls can be sexually abused. It can happen to young children who attend kindergartens, to those who attend elementary schools, and to youth attending high schools.
Unfortunately, research and experience show that abusers are most often the persons known to children, those whom children trust and who are somehow involved in childcare. Very often abusers are family members or very close family friends, neighbours, and even teachers. They are often people whom parents also trust.
Children who have experienced sexual abuse may feel shame, guilt, anxiety, fear, anger. Such experience can be very confusing, when the persons children love and who take care of them do that. It is not easy to understand that such persons can at the same time inflict pain and do things children do not like and are scared of. Sexually abused children can feel lonely, unloved or they may feel they do not matter to anybody.
Sometimes children like the attention they receive from abusers, and some children feel special and feel pleasure. Abusers may show interest, say nice words, they can do many funny and nice things together with children, children may receive presents. Sometimes parts of our body react with pleasure when someone touches them, even when we do not want it. That is the reason why children may feel guilty and believe they have done something bad.
Abuse is never something the child wants and the child is never guilty for such experience and events.
Why do adults abuse children? Why has it happened to me?
People who abuse children certainly have problems and they are responsible for abuse. Some of them are lonely and cannot find the way to have someone who loves them. Some may think that it is a good way to show someone you love him/her. When an adult touches and abuses the child, that person does something bad which is prohibited by law. That person certainly needs help in order to stop doing such things to the child.
Children often believe that they have done something bad or that they are bad, and that it is the reason why they have experienced abuse. That is absolutely not true.
Children who have experienced (sexual) abuse are not bad persons and they are never guilty for the abuse.
Why is the member of my family hurting me?
Unfortunately, children sometimes experience unpleasant touches and other unpleasant things from family members. It is really difficult to understand. Many children in such situations feel utterly confused and have difficulties in deciding what they feel towards these persons. It is really difficult when someone you love is hurting you. It is all right to have various feelings towards a person who is sometimes very nice and kind to you, and sometimes hurts you and does things which make you feel bad and embarrassed.
Why I did not say what was happening to me, before?
Sometimes abusers tell children to never talk about the abuse, that it is their secret, or they present the abuse as playing some game. Abusers use threats to ensure that the child will keep their “secret”: they tell the child that something bad will happen, or that the people they love will be hurt, or that their pet will be hurt.
Sometimes nobody tells the child not to talk about his/her experience, but the child feels that s/he should not talk about it.
Sometimes children understand that something unusual, something that should not be happening is happening to them, but they do not know how to explain and describe their experience. When they are young, they often do not even know that such touches and kisses between children and adults are not allowed.
Disclosing the experience of abuse to someone is really difficult. Children may worry about that person (because they love him/her), or about themselves, they may be concerned about what is going to happen if abuse is exposed. Sometimes adults do not trust children. Or they become upset with what they have heard and tell the children not to talk about that with anybody else, but they do not do anything to stop the abuse. That is exactly the reason why children should talk until they find an adult who will listen, trust them and help them stop the abuse. Confiding in someone is the first step in stopping the abuse.
What if my family falls apart because I talked?
Many children who have experienced abuse worry about how others around them will react when they hear what has been happening to them. They worry if their parents are going to get divorced and if the abuser is going to prison.
If the abuser is imprisoned, it will certainly not happen because of the child, but because that adult has done something that is not allowed, something that is legally prohibited. That person will be imprisoned because s/he has done bad things and abused the child, and not because the child disclosed that secret.
Sometimes one of the parents abuses the child because that parent has problems. And it sometimes also happens that parents get divorced after the child has disclosed his/her experience of abuse. If parents divorce, it is because they have problems in their relationship, not because of the fact that the child disclosed abuse.
Why do I have to leave my family?
When the child discloses his/her experience of sexual abuse, the most important thing is to try to protect the child and ensure his/her safety. Sometimes, after they have disclosed abuse, children have to leave their family and live at another place for some time, with their relatives, or friends, sometimes in a foster family or in a children’s home. Most children feel scared, they think that it is not fair, and they can even feel punished. However, it is not a punishment. Taking the child from his/her family is adults’ attempt to protect the child while the police and the court are investigating what has happened. Talking about such thoughts and feelings with someone children trust can help them feel less lonely.
What will other people think of me, if they get to know? Do my looks reveal what I have experienced?
Sometimes children want to hide what has happened to them, they do not want to tell their friends and others about their experience. Sometimes they think that they are not allowed to talk about that, and sometimes they do not want to, because they think they are different and worry that others will think that they are not good persons. Children have the right to choose whom they will tell about their experience and they have the right to say no when they do not want to answer questions, even from their best friends.
Some friends and other children may think that what has happened to abused children is strange, because they have never heard about abuse. However, it does not mean they think that the child who has experienced abuse is strange, but that what happened is unusual. Sometimes friends immediately understand what your are telling them. Regrettably, there are many children who have experienced some form of abuse and who have been somehow hurt by adults.
Why do I have to go to the court?
Child and youth abuse is prohibited by law. Unfortunately, people who abuse them do not stop doing it by themselves. The court is the place where they take care that people abide by law and that adults who abuse are stopped.
What if the abuser is not punished?
This is the most difficult thing to understand. Sometimes the court does not punish some people even if we know they are guilty and that the child has told the truth. That is really not fair.
Regardless of the court trial and the court decision about what has happened, the child has the right to tell the truth and talk about his/her experience.
Why am I feeling “dirty”?
Children whose private body parts have been touched sometimes feel “dirty”, labelled, and they feel like “defective merchandise”. They say that they wash and wash themselves, and they still feel the same. That feeling requires some time to vanish. Talking to someone who understands can help children to feel better.
Why I do not like when someone is touching me? Will it always be like that?
Abused children can have strange feelings in their bodies and towards their bodies. They sometimes describe their wish to withdraw and go away when someone is close to them, they say that they turn into stone or feel frozen and cannot move. Such reactions are normal after sexual abuse, or any other situation when children have been hurt. They feel the pain their body felt due to hurting behaviours they experienced. Their body remembers the experience and responds to everything which reminds them of the pain they felt and when they were not safe. In the period of recovery from abuse, their body needs to get used to being touched safely, they need to learn that every touch is not bad, nor hurtful.
Will the memories ever vanish, will they disappear from my head?
Children who have experienced abuse often say they remember images and feelings although they do not want it. Images and memories just pop up and it scares them. They say that memories and images are sometimes too strong, realistic and impossible to stop, that they feel like they are being abused again. Most children are scared and worried that such experience might be repeated.
Going to therapy and talking with a professional who understands what the child is experiencing can help in recovery. Through healing their emotional wounds inflicted by abuse, children can get to know their feelings better and process their past experience. In time, the memories can become less powerful or even completely vanish. It is possible that some of them will forever remain there as a part of what children know about themselves. However, if they talk about their experience and understand that they are not guilty and that what is bad is the abuse they have experienced, remembering that experience will possibly be less embarrassing. By talking with a professional, children can learn about how they can feel safer and less scared, but also how to recognise dangerous situations and protect themselves from them.
Sexually abused children are not strange or different from other children, especially if they understand that they are not guilty for abuse and that abuse is not their fault.
Written by: Ivana Ćosić Pregrad, psychologist