In the book Dis ek, Anna (translated to It’s me, Anna) Anchien Troskie chillingly tells of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather for eight years. She called herself Silent Anna as she felt she couldn’t speak to anyone about what was happening to her.
I read the book for the first time recently and was still haunted by it when I heard, yet again, of an adult in the position of a trusted caregiver abusing young children. This time it was uncovered because the boy went home and told his dad about what took place at school.
Thinking or hearing about the sexual abuse of children is horrible; it makes you angry and terrified for your own children. Yet it is something we all need to talk about to protect our most vulnerable.
Sharon Lewis, writer of An adult’s guide to childhood trauma, provides a guide of typical characteristics a child abuser may have. It includes things such as the abuser having a sense of owning the child and the inability to establish a lasting adult relationship.
The adult will often show signs of other types of abuse or violence when interacting with children writes Lewis. She explains that the sexual abuse is acted out due to the adult wanting to satisfy one or the other emotional need.
The abuser will want to be in a position of authority and responsibility for the child as this makes it easier to be alone with, and force the child to take part in the sexual act. Usually this takes a lot of planning, with the grooming of the child taking place over a long period of time. If the child feels isolated and alone, it is easier for the abuse to take place.
Lewis says that, although it is difficult for a child to tell someone of the abuse, certain signs may indicate that you, as parent or caregiver, need to help your child:
- Not trusting, or trying to avoid an adult that the child knows well.
- Suddenly being afraid of well-known places.
- The child will display a fear of being bathed, dressed, or having a nappy changed.
- The child will display sexual knowledge that is not applicable to his or her current age.
- The child might act out adult sexual acts or compulsive masturbation.
- The child’s mood will change suddenly and without warning.
- Diminishing levels of concentration.
- A child of school-going age will struggle to keep up with school work.
- School attendance will decrease.
- The child may regress to behaviour typically associated with a younger age like bed wetting or thumb sucking.
- The child will become isolated from family and friends.
- Complaining about tummy aches or headaches when these ailments have no physical cause.
- Sudden loss of appetite, refusing to eat, or over-eating.
- A change in normal sleeping patterns.
- Destructive or aggressive behaviour. The child may start ruining toys or books or have an urge to hurt other kids.
- The child will start purposefully hurting her/himself. Acts such as cutting may take place.
- Adolescents can become rebellious, reckless, or promiscuous.
- The child may run away from home or try to commit suicide.
- Alcohol or drug abuse may develop.
As a parent it is important that you remember that these are only examples of signs that may be displayed. Certain children suffering abuse may very well display none of these signs.
Apart from being able to recognise possible signs and protecting your child, possibly the most important factor in dealing with sexual abuse of children is the reaction once the child tells you of the abuse. Displaying anger will only add to the child’s sense of having done something wrong, guilt, and embarrassment. The child needs to be reassured that they have done the absolute best thing by telling you. The worst reaction possible is indicating to the child that you do not believe them. This just reinforces to the child that they are alone without anyone to trust for help.
As a parent to a young child myself I often wonder about teaching my child to ward of abusers while still protecting her innocence. I spoke to Antonia Roos, a Clinical Psychologist in Garsfontein Pretoria, regarding guidance for the protection of children while safe-guarding their innocence.
“Regarding children, it is important that they know what their various body parts are and that they can name them. The reason for this is for security purposes; so that the child can know which specific parts fall under ‘private parts’ and can report where they may have been violated.
There are many different ways to refer private areas (vulgar, casual, medical and child-like). The caregiver can use age-appropriate terms in order for the child to have knowledge of their body parts in a dignified manner. In this regard, parents need not necessarily use medical terms with very small children but rather terms that the child feels comfortable with; as long as both child and caregiver are clear on what the term for each body part refers to.
Parents also need to talk to their children about the issue of secrets. The child should understand that regarding private parts, only their trusted caregiver may touch them for the purposes of personal care, or an adult who is there to help medically and in the presence of the caregiver. The child must understand that there should be no secrets regarding the matter of private parts, no matter what that person may say to them. And that even though it may be embarrassing for the child to tell their caregivers of incidents, that they should do so and have nothing to feel ashamed about.
On that note, one must consider the concrete logic of a child. There have been cases such as a father who said that he would kill someone if they molest his daughter. The daughter was molested by the grandfather and did not tell the father because she had heard something about the consequences of murder. Her thoughts went along the lines of, “If I tell what grandpa did to me, daddy would kill him and they would hang him and that would be too awful!”. In this regard, let the child know that it is safe for them to talk about any situation that made them feel uncomfortable. This would teach them to follow their intuition (which gets suppressed through socialisation) and to have the assertiveness to speak up, to say ‘no’, and report abuse.”
Toll-free helpline numbers:
Childline: 0800 055 555
Lifeline: 0861 322 322