From my hopefully soon to be published book:
What the parent can do is to be supportive and reassuring to the child who has been abused.
· Be careful of your reaction to the news. If you “freak out”, you may be giving the child the message that he is “damaged goods”. Sexual abuse is not what any parent would want for his or her child, but it is not the end of the world.
· Be supportive. Saying things like, “It was not your fault” is useful since children tend to blame themselves when something goes wrong. Letting the child know that this happens to other children and that he is not the only one is important.
· Try not to make statements or ask questions that imply blame for the child’s decision-making. Saying things like, “Why did you go over there?” or “How come you didn’t tell us right away?” can only make the child feel worse and there is probably no “right” answer he can give you at this point.
· Let him know he did the right thing by bringing it to your attention (or confirming what happened if he told someone else).
· Answer the child’s questions as best you can. If he asks what will happen to the abuser, you will probably need to refer to the district attorney or prosecutor’s office. (Most prosecutor offices have investigators and attorneys who specialize in sexual and child abuse cases so this person can work with your child and answer his questions.)
· Find a therapist with considerable experience in sexual abuse who can at least assess the need for treatment. (See “A Consumer’s Guide to Choosing a Therapist” in the appendix.)
· Be aware that he may withdraw the accusation. This is called “recantation” in legal terms. What it means is that the child may have second thoughts and wants to retract his statement. This can come about from realization of consequences to himself, his family or the perpetrator, or from fear of the process he is going through. That is, he may believe that if he says it never happened, life will return to normal.
If you are reading this and it is past the initial disclosure and possible CPS investigation, are there things you could do differently at this stage? Child victims and adult survivors generally know that sexual abuse is bad. They likely feel emotionally and sometimes physically damaged by the abuse. They probably will be sensitive to any perceived criticism and already have been blaming themselves for “allowing” the abuse to take place, “failing” to report it, or “putting themselves in the situation again” if they returned after the first assault.
In other words, the victim or survivor is almost certainly beating himself up for the abuse. It doesn’t help when a parent, partner or other potentially supportive person asks what feel like victim-blaming questions or makes statements implying that he could or should have done something different.
One of the major problems for many survivors and child victims is the confusion about the body’s response to abuse. Any boy’s penis will become erect if it is stimulated, and sometimes he will experience orgasm or ejaculation even though he does not want the abuser’s attention and doesn’t understand what is happening to him. An abused boy will seldom raise his concerns about this; his feelings of shame and guilt will simply be too overwhelming. But parents can be of great help here if they take advantage of any opportunity to reassure him that erections, orgasm and ejaculation only mean that his “equipment” is in good working order – nothing more. Remember that the perpetrator may used your son’s physical response to make him believe he wanted the abuse or is gay.
As one survivor wrote:
That was a huge burden for me as a boy, especially since the abuser made a point of using those points against me. I felt like my body didn't belong to me anymore; it was listening to him and not to me. There was no “me” anymore, just an empty shell good for nothing except what the abuser wanted. I was so confused and guilty. How could I have talked about that? Where would I even start?
Support and encouragement are better than advice, particularly when it is of the “get over it” variety. This is akin to the comment some will say when a woman has lost a pregnancy through miscarriage. “You’re young, you can always try again” may sound helpful, but does any grieving parent want to hear that advice?
For the adult, the best thing you may be able to say is, “I’m so sorry to hear about that. Is there anything I can do for you?” To the child victim, one can say, “This was a terrible thing to happen. I will help you get past this and will be here for you.” Telling the child or survivor that you love him also helps. Reminding him that it was not his fault cannot be said enough.
Although the child or adult may reassure you that he is alright, it doesn’t hurt to ask once in a while how he is doing and is there anything you can do to help. Be prepared to hear a denial of any problems. Keeping an eye on moods, behaviors and other indicators will be useful, especially if you pass that information on to the therapist.
Should You Force a Child into Treatment?
Many abused children do not want to talk about the abuse after it is discovered. By the time the child has gone through CPS and/or the legal system, he may have told his story numerous times and tell you he is tired of talking about it. Although you may tell him that being in therapy is the best thing for him, he may fight you on this.
I have mixed feelings about making a child victim go to therapy when he doesn’t want to. In some ways, it is like making a child go to the dentist or accept medical treatment that he doesn’t want. If an eight-year-old tells you he doesn’t want to go for a series of painful rabies shots when he has been in contact with a possibly rabid animal, should you force him? Most people would say he should get the shots because the consequence for untreated rabies is usually death. Painful shots are a small price to pay for preventing death, most would argue. And children cannot see the “big picture” and anticipate consequences that may happen in the future.
Sexual abuse is not the equivalent of a death sentence from rabies. It might be closer to going to the dentist. Yes, the intervention may be painful but the long-term effects of not treating the decay may be further pain and loss of teeth. With some children, arguing about the long-term consequences may be futile and the parent may just have to use the parental authority of “Because I said so”.
On the other hand, the abused child may be resilient and not need therapy for what happened to him. Wouldn’t forcing him to do something he does not want to do be a further “victimization”? Some would say that the consequences are not fatal, and he is being forced again to do something he doesn’t want. If his experience with therapy at age eight is unpleasant or even traumatizing, he will be less likely to want to return to treatment years later if more serious symptoms emerge.
So, we have the dilemma of “do this for your own good” versus “you shouldn’t be forced to do something you don’t want to do”.
My solution is to say to the child, “Come see me three times and you decide after the third visit whether you want to come back again. I will support your decision with your parents, but if I truly believe that it is very important that you continue with me or someone else, I’ll talk that over with you.” This gives me the opportunity to assess how he might be affected by the abuse instead of fighting about being in therapy. It also puts some degree of control in the child’s hands, as well as the understanding that he will only have to come three more times unless he wants to continue or I have strong feelings that he needs to address the issues in therapy.
In my experience, most kids who agree to three sessions will come back for additional sessions if necessary. If they don’t, my sense is that their experience with therapy will not be seen as dreadful and they will probably feel more comfortable in the future should problems arise and they need to get back into treatment. I’m hard pressed to recall any abused children who didn’t want to remain in therapy when I strongly felt they should.
It can be useful to ask the therapist how s/he deals with the child who doesn’t want to be in therapy if your child is unwilling to go. It is also helpful to give him the same three-session option, but you should let the therapist know this so you are working together on this.
It may be that the first therapist you bring an abused child to is not the best match for that child. While the therapist may be skilled and knowledgeable in sexual abuse issues, s/he may not have a good rapport with every child. Or the therapist may be engaging and pleasant with the child but not know much about sexual abuse, so that the child likes to see the therapist but there is little going on to deal with the abuse. Just as it might be useful to go with the “three session” arrangement, it may also be helpful to ask the child to try another therapist if there is not a good match with the first one.
Adolescents initially tend to be less verbal and more guarded in their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it is helpful to let the adolescent male know what some of the symptoms and concerns are for teens who were abused. Rather than asking what is going on, if they don’t volunteer such information, I find it more productive to give them a “shopping list” of issues that are common with this population. The child may be better able to acknowledge something that you said, rather than to disclose it himself.
For example, when I tell a child that many children who have had the same kind of experience worry that others are able to tell that he had been abused, or that many children believe that it is somehow their fault for the abuse, or that most kids try to forget about what happened but it just seems to keep coming back, they are often relieved that they are not the only one who has had these concerns. However, talking about sexual abuse with a parent can be a lot more difficult for a child or teen than it is to talk with a professional he doesn’t have to live with. Think about how difficult it was for you to talk about sexual matters with a parent when you were a child or teen.
When the Abuser is a Sibling
This situation can be quite upsetting for a parent. As bad as it is to discover that one of your children has been sexually abused (or has abused another child), imagine what it must be like to be not only the parent of a victim or perpetrator, but also the parent of both!
Parents are often torn about whom to believe when there is a discrepancy between the stories of both children. Since there is generally no witness to what happened, it is a case of one of them lying or withholding information. The conventional wisdom is that victims of sexual abuse don’t lie. Generally, that is the case. Unless there is some compelling reason for the “alleged” victim to lie, it makes more sense to assume that the “alleged” perpetrator has more reasons to deny the allegations.
Sometimes a child may lie about the abuse in an attempt to manipulate where s/he is living. It can occur in custody cases where the non-custodial parent wants the child to lie so s/he can obtain custody or deny visitation to the other parent. These are complicated cases that generally wind up in family court and require experienced evaluators to determine the truth of the situation.
When assessing an alleged perpetrator in this kind of situation, I listen for his analysis of why the victim would say such a thing about him. Often the youth who is lying presents his victim as a manipulative person who chooses this allegation to get back for something else the perpetrator did, such as breaking or losing some possession of the victim. He might try to portray the victim as getting back at him for something the perpetrator said about the victim. The young perpetrator who is lying frequently tries to build a larger case of real or imaginary misdeeds the victim has committed in order to give the impression that the allegation of sexual abuse is just another in a long line of indiscretions and fabrications.
My response to this defense is to ask how else the victim could get back at him besides making up this story. If the perpetrator can point out other choices the victim could have made, I ask, “Why use this complaint when it is so potentially damaging? Why pick sexual abuse when it could result in embarrassing statements to parents, police, medical people, etc?” These questions are also applicable if the accused perpetrator cannot come up with any explanation.
If the person is still in denial about doing what he was accused of, I explore the hypothetical with him. “If this were really true, what do you think would happen?,” I will ask him. This is important to explore the possible reasons for his denial and barriers to telling the truth. What would happen to him from a legal perspective? He may be fearful that he would be sent away to a foster home or institution. He may be afraid that he will have to go to juvenile court and be put on probation or worse. He may be fearful that he will be exposed in the newspapers or at his school as a sexual predator.
From the standpoint of his relationships with family and friends, I ask him what he thinks will change, or what consequences he would face if this were true. Will his parents still love and support him? Will all the relatives have to find out about what he did? Will his friends find out and leave him? Often, the alleged perpetrator is fearful of many consequences that may not actually occur. By analyzing the possible outcomes and assuring him that juvenile courts are more interested in rehabilitation than punishment, the youth generally finds it easier to admit what he did.