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Sexual Abuse

For Parents

Sometimes parents worry that their child may have been sexually abused well before a child makes a disclosure. There are many situations that might lead a parent to have this worry—the child may be showing signs of stress, such as not sleeping well, avoiding things they previously enjoyed, complaining of vague physical ailments, or just being more irritable and cranky than is normal. Sometimes parents just have a “gut” feeling that something is wrong or question whether there is something wrong in one the child’s relationships. 

Sexual abuse or any kind of maltreatment is difficult for children to talk about—they often think they did something wrong, worry about getting the perpetrator in trouble, or worry that the perpetrator will seek revenge in some way. So it’s important for children to feel comfortable and safe talking with you or another trusted adult. Parents can let their children know that they have been worried about them because of they seemed more stressed than is usual. Let the child know that you are there to help and you won’t get mad or upset but will do whatever is necessary to help them. Let them know that you are there for them to talk to whenever they feel comfortable talking.  

How to talk about abuse

Sometimes perpetrators tell children that they need to “keep the secret” and “don’t tell anyone.” Parents can talk to their children about the difference between secrets and surprises. Let children know that there should never be a time when anyone asks them to keep a secret from a parent. Children should always feel comfortable talking to their parents about anything. Children might think that sometimes families keep some secrets, like surprise birthday parties or a gift they made for their parent. Explain that those are actually surprises more than secrets, and those types of surprises are fun and positive, but that secrets from parents are usually a sign that something is wrong.

In general, it’s good for parents to have discussions with their children about what to do when faced with problems. This can include a number of stressors that children face, including worries about schoolwork, worries about school bullies, as well as inappropriate touching. Sexual abuse can be explained to young children by talking about the “private parts rule;” that is,  no one is allowed to touch or look at their private parts, with the exception of a parent who is helping with cleaning or applying medicine, or when a parent takes the child to a doctor for a medical examination. Even then, if it feels uncomfortable, it is important to talk with a trusted adult to see if what is happening is OK. “Private parts” can be defined as the “parts of your body covered by your bathing suit” or by using anatomical terms that the child is familiar with. Children can be encouraged to say “no” to inappropriate touches, even if it is an adult, and then talk to a parent as soon as possible.

Things you need to know when a child has just disclosed sexual abuse.

Hearing a child disclose sexual abuse is one of the most difficult situations that a parent can face. However, it’s important to remain as calm and supportive as possible and reassure the child that talking about what happened is the right thing to do. It’s OK to gently ask questions to gain a general understanding of what happened, but it’s important not to grill the child for details. It is also important to avoid asking questions that might be suggestive to the child. For example, avoid asking if the abuse happened with a particular person, at a particular place, and if specific acts were involved. It’s OK to share with the child your feelings (“I feel very sad that this happened to you”), but it is important to also model for your child that you can have these feelings but also be calm and attentive. Once a child discloses abuse, it’s important to talk to child protective services, and it’s also important to have a medical evaluation. When unsure who to talk to or where to go for a medical evaluation, it’s always wise to consult your family physician. Medical and mental health professionals, teachers, and law enforcement officers are all required to report suspected child abuse to the local child protective service agency.  

Children may feel worried that they did something wrong, or that something bad will happen as a result of telling about the abuse. Parents can reassure that what happened was not the child’s fault, that the perpetrator was wrong, and that as a parent you will make sure the child is safe and secure. 

Getting support

Parents will need many supports through this period, and consulting with mental health professionals can be very helpful. In many areas, Children’s Advocacy Centres can help families through the disclosure and healing. There are also many helpful organizations with websites that can provide important information. These include the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of children, and the American Psychological Association. Some children and families can benefit from mental health counselling and psychotherapy after the disclosure of sexual abuse. A number of effective therapies are now available and are widely available through mental health centres such as the IWK.   

For Youth

I’m worried – I was sexually abused.

Sometimes children and teens are unsure if their experiences were indeed sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse is any time an adult or older child or teen uses someone who is younger or who is in their care for sex. Sexual abuse often includes touching, kissing, fondling, rubbing, oral sex and/or genital penetration. It can also include situations where an offender exposes himself, has the youth watch pornography, or observes or films a youth removing his or her clothes. Offenders sometimes use physical force, but more often use deceptive tactics like play, gifts, positive attention and threats to engage their victims and stop them from telling about the abuse.  Unfortunately, sexual abuse is not uncommon – about 1 in 10 have a sexual abuse experience when either a child or teen.  

It’s not unusual for victims of sexual abuse to feel confused, worried and shamed. Child sexual abuse is secretive and almost always occurs in private, so victims often worry that they won’t be believed or that something bad will happen to them if they tell. It is important to know that sexual abuse victims are never to blame for the abuse, and that sexual abuse is a crime.

Talking About It

Although it takes a lot of courage to talk about this type of thing, it is important to tell a trusted adult about the abuse – this could be a parent, a school counsellor or teacher, or even a trusted relative, adult friend, or older brother or sister. The most important thing is to tell someone — or even several people — until someone takes action to stop the abuse from happening. 

Here are some ideas that can help with the “telling” process.  Let the person know you need to talk about something in private. If you're not sure if it's abuse, you can tell the person that something happened and you want to check to see if it might be abuse.  By telling about what happened, you will start the healing process. This may be one of the bravest things you’ve ever done – by telling about the abuse, it also helps make sure the offender doesn’t harm others in the future. Indeed, over the past 20 years, the rates of sexual abuse have decreased due to youth telling about their experiences and courts taking action to protect the public – so those who tell are real-life heroes.

Sexual abuse can be a traumatic event that stirs up lots of negative feelings, emotions, and thoughts, and that can affect adjustment at home, school and with friends. Sometimes victims develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The symptoms include thinking about the events even when you don’t want to, and even having dreams and nightmares about it. Reminders of what happened can often result in strong emotional feelings that may take a long time to go away. As a result, those with PTSD often try to stay away from places, activities, and people that remind them of what happened or that feel unsafe. These symptoms can interfere with day-to-day activities like spending time with family and friends and feeling comfortable and focused at school. Sometimes victims can develop depression, or their anger from the abuse is directed either at themselves or others. 

The good news is that there are effective, supportive and positive mental health services that really help sexual abuse victims and their families heal.  There are many helping professionals that can smooth the path from disclosure to healing.  These services are offered through hospitals and community mental health centres and private services can be supported through the Nova Scotia Department of Victim Services Criminal Injuries Counselling Program.

I’m worried – I was sexually assaulted by someone that I know.

Acquaintance rape is when somebody you know—a boyfriend or girlfriend, a friend, a classmate or even someone you just met—uses coercion (including drugs or alcohol), violence or threats to force unwanted oral, vaginal or anal sex. When this happens in a dating relationship, it is commonly known as date rape.  Acquaintance rape is unfortunately not uncommon and many victims are young teens. In fact, as many as 1 in 4 women report a history of acquaintance rape and 38% of acquaintance rape victims are 14-17 years old.  

Rape is a serious crime.  Although it can be difficult, it is very important to report what happened. Sometimes youth worry that they will get into trouble themselves because it might have happened when they were someplace that they weren’t supposed to be, when drinking or taking drugs or when they were out past their curfew. None of these situations are excuses for acquaintance rape! Police and other professionals are sensitive to these circumstances and the main concerns are assuring the victim is safe and receives medical attention, and that the offender is stopped.  

Getting Immediate Medical Help

It is very important to get a medical exam at a hospital or health centre. It is best to do this as immediately as possible, and before showering, changing clothes, brushing teeth, or even going to the bathroom. Even if this wasn’t possible, it is still important to have a medical examination.  This exam will attend to injuries, assist in the collection of evidence for the police and provide emergency contraception.  Nurses, doctors and law enforcement are trained to help victims with the process so that they feel supported and discomfort and embarrassment are minimized.   

Rape can be a very traumatic event that can create strong painful thoughts, feelings and emotional distress, including Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms can include sleep problems and nightmares, feelings of humiliation and self-blame, depression, and mood swings of anger, anxiety and fear. These symptoms can seriously affect adjustment at home, school or work, and relationships with family, friends and peers.  A mental health counsellor can help victims work through these feelings and take steps toward healing. There are many mental health services for rape victims that are supportive, effective and positive that help victims cope, move forward with their lives and feel empowered again. These services are offered through hospitals and community mental health centres. Private services can be supported through the Nova Scotia Department of Victim Services Criminal Injuries Counselling Program.