How To Help Child Victims of Sexual Abuse

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Victims of child sexual abuse often develop problem anger as a defensive reaction to a profound violation of safety and trust.  These children need our love, support and acceptance as they try to recover from the abuse.  As we learn more about the Penn State child rape scandal, my thoughts and concerns remain with the victims. Many children do not tell anyone what happened. I have clients in their 40’s who never told their parents they were raped or molested. Sometimes they don’t tell because they were threatened by the perpetrator. Here are a few of the comments said to some of my client victims by their perpetrators:
  • No one will believe you and they will call you a liar.
  • I’ll hurt you and your family if you ever tell.
  • Everyone will know what a slut you are.
  • I’ll do it to your little sister too if you ever tell.
  • Your family will know you’re gay and never speak to you again.
Perpetrators often pick victims with vulnerabilities they can exploit. Children from single parent families and/or of low socioeconomic status make easier victims – children like those involved in accused child rapist Jerry Sandusky’s Second Mile charity. These kids want to protect their family from any more stress, as they might live a paycheck away from hunger and homelessness.

Child victims from wealthier homes or socially prominent families are often threatened with loss of life, social status, or public humiliation. Many child victims take on the heroic burden of protecting their families from pain, by keeping the big secret, at astonishingly young ages. I worked with a little 6 year old girl who said, “I can never tell my mother because she will cry and cry and never stop.”

Physical Symptoms
Victims of child rape and molest often go through a familiar painful process. After the physical wounds heal, confusing emotions take hold. Anger, hurt, embarrassment, guilt, shame, fear and revulsion can take residence in the body, causing physical symptoms.
  • gastro-intestinal complaints
  • stomach aches and headaches
  • sleep problems
  • encopresis
  • enuresis
Behavioral Symptoms
Children often regress to behaviors of a younger age, before the molestation took place. This provides comfort for them as they can imagine a happier sense of safety and innocence. For some the burden of the secret provokes internal conflicts that leak out in a noticeable change of behavior. Some children go from happy, compliant, obedient angels to angry, incorrigible, destructive delinquents after a rape or molestation. Other behavioral symptoms include:
  • self-mutilation (burning, cutting, etc.)
  • eating disorders
  • substance abuse
  • sneaking out or running away
  • changes in friendship group
  • social isolation
  • lack of interest in normally pleasurable activities
Damage to Body Image
Rape and molestation change a child’s relationship to his or her body. Instead of feeling free to explore the world and master new skills, the body becomes a source of conflict. The little girl assumes her early developing breasts caused the rape. The victimized boy believes his body is defective because it brought on this attack by a pervert. This can trigger a lifelong battle with the body as the enemy of one’s happiness and serenity. One young woman raped as a preteen hated her breasts and had panic/rage attacks when men would look at her chest. She begged her parents to have her breasts surgically removed.

Family Reactions Can Hurt Worse Than Rape
Many victims of rape and molestation tell me that they recovered fully from the crime itself, and even forgave the perpetrator. But some feel wounded and resentful years afterward by the reactions of family and friends. Victims of incest often face an even bigger evil. I like this line from the Survivors Speak Out network, “The taboo against talking about incest is stronger than the taboo against doing it.” Children raped by family members can be made to feel responsible for the break up of the family. One woman told me that her siblings angrily blamed her for the loss of their father after he was convicted of molesting her. Many victims say, “everyone would be happier if I just shut up and disappeared.” That’s a cruel and unfair burden for a child to bear.

How To Protect Your Children

Children need to know about sexual matters. Ignorant children are vulnerable. Parents should provide age appropriate sexual education starting with the proper naming of body parts in toddler-hood. Parents need to know that words like “rape”, “penis”, and”vagina” are talked about on every elementary school playground. It’s best if these terms are defined by the parents, and not by a seven year old who watches R-rated films.

Sexual abuse prevention programs, like Good Touch, Bad Touch, provide parents with helpful guidelines for preventing child abuse. It’s important for parents to know that just because a child knows the difference between “good” and “bad” touch, doesn’t mean that child should be responsible for self-protection. Parents need to remain vigilant. Children should never be coerced into providing physical affection to relatives and friends. This disturbs their ability to set appropriate boundaries with adults or teens who wish to get too close. We all have a natural “ick” detector, and if we’ve been forced to endure grandpa’s icky wet kisses, we can lose that protective instinct.

One of my biggest peeves involves the squeamish, juvenile avoidance of sexual communication in families. It’s is one of the biggest, crazy-making ironies of our culture, that sex is everywhere, selling everything and yet parents can’t say the words “penis”, “vulva” or “vagina” without red-faced embarrassment. Years ago I confronted this discomfort at a meeting at a mental health clinic. A group of professionals were discussing what should be on the new counseling intake form. In a long list of questions about substance abuse, legal difficulties, and family history of mental illness, someone suggested sexual abuse should be on the form. Another therapist said, “oh no, we don’t want to open that can of worms.” As I felt the bile go to my throat I said, “why is sex abuse any bigger can of worms than substance abuse? Victims need a safe place to talk. It’s our job to hear these things, open them up for discussion and help victims heal.” The question ended up on the form.

When we feel and act embarrassed talking about sex around children we just add to the pedophiles arsenal of weapons. When we equate ignorance with innocence and virginity with purity, we give the perpetrator the ability to define the abuse as good and the child as bad. Do we want our children so ignorant that they learn about sex from a pervert?

Is a raped child any less pure? Perpetrators know that kids are sexually ignorant and parents won’t ask the right questions. Child abusers know that adults get all wimpy and squeamish and giggly at the mention of anything sexual. Perpetrators thrive in an environment of denial and avoidance.

What To Do if Your Child Was Molested

If your child shares abuse information with you let them talk. Listen without judgment. Let them know you love them. Call the National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) for help. Take the child for a medical exam, and consider rape counseling and support groups. Get educated with resources and books like, What To Do When Your Child Has Been Molested, or this helpful article from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Imagine that instead of sexual abuse, your child is telling you about getting beat up at school. Would you get all embarrassed and tongue-tied? Would you flip out and get homicidal? It’s more likely that you would ask questions like, “what happened?” and “are you hurting anywhere?” Express loving concern, but stay calm and supportive. The child has enough to worry about without having to take care of you.

It’s important to know that a child’s life need not be ruined by sexual victimization. Many children recover and go onto lead healthy, normal lives after molestation and rape. What’s most important is how their loved-ones react, and how safe they feel after the trauma.

Other factors that impact recovery from abuse include:
  • The severity of abuse
  • The duration of the abuse
  • The relationship to the perpetrator

Actress, Goldie Hawn writes about her molestation as a child, in her memoir A Lotus Grows in the Mud. She says she was able to recover and feel normal feelings of trust for men after her mother explained that the perpetrator was “sick in the head.” Goldie felt loved and accepted by her mother, and says she was never made to feel “dirty” or defective because of the abuse.

One silver lining in the media’s attention to the Penn State scandal is that it might encourage more victims to come out and talk about their abuse. Relinquishing the secret of sexual victimization can help many begin to heal. Realize that a victim is a complex human being, with a unique story. We are splendid and beautiful beings, far more significant than any crime(s) perpetrated against us.

A version of this post previously appeared at Women in Crime Ink, December 2, 2011.