04 Sep 2018

Children will not say they are being sexually abused, but the signs are there

A child usually won’t tell someone that they have been abused. But they do send subtle signals and it’s the adult’s responsibility to pick up on them and take the appropriate action.

Wysokie Obcasy
Magdalena Karst-Adamczyk Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Children will not say they are being sexually abused, but the signs are there - NewsMavens
Girl, PixaBay

--The following fragments from Magdalena Karst-Adamczyk’s  interview with therapist Jolanta Zmarzlik originally appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in February 2018.

Magdalena Karst-Adamczyk: Not too long ago Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics national team doctor, was sentenced to 175 years in prison. Nearly 160 young women, including female Olympic gymnasts and medalists, accused him of sexual abuse. One of them claimed that she had reported the issue 20 years earlier but her complaint was completely ignored. Why don’t we listen when children speak up about such problems?

Jolanta Zmarzlik: First of all, parents find it hard to admit that their child might have been a victim of sexual assault. Secondly, in many cases like these they will stubbornly defend their dreams, e.g.  of their son or daughter becoming a world champion. Another reason behind their indifference is the fear of hurting that adult and destroying their career with groundless accusations.

It’s a commonly repeated process -- we sacrifice children to protect adults and secure our delusion about how happy and perfectly safe the world is.

MKA: Because such horrible things happen to someone else, and not to us?

Because these terrible things are happening in other places, not here. And we wrongly assume that the people around us, to whom we say "good morning" and who look after our children are just like us. That's why people resist believing the child and admitting that perhaps this adult has grievously injured their child. “He is such a cultured man -- the child must be lying because children lie and make things up.”

MKA: If adults notice that a child might be having a problem does it make any difference who these adults are?

Are you asking if it matters whether it is happening within the upper class or in the poor suburbs?

Two sisters, aged 6 and 9 were brought to our foundation. They came from a troubled family -- different fathers, both absent. The sisters were raised by their working mother, who also was a recovering alcoholic. One day, a neighbor invited the girls into his flat. He raped the 6-year-old and tried to hurt the other, but the younger sister started screaming and neighbors came to their aid. The rapist went to jail and girls were brought to us and began therapy. The family was granted a bigger flat in a safer district and the local community -- much to my surprise -- supported the victims, completely, and with all their hearts.

But these cases do not always work out this way:

In a Polish village, a local priest sexually assaulted a young girl. He was taken to court and sentenced to prison. After the affair, a reporter visited the village and talked to the locals. What did he hear?: “It’s not true”, “That shameless slut seduced him!”, and “The priest is suffering, we should pray for him.”

The first story is unfortunately a very rare reaction, in every facet of society. The second scenario is painfully predictable and happens very often, among all social classes and especially if the abuser is a well-known or high-ranking person in the community

MKA: Plenty of child abuse incidents will never go public, but what happens when they do? How are they uncovered?

A child who is experiencing sexual harassment tends to indicate their suffering in various ways.

It’s essential that adults pick up on these signs of abuse and react appropriately. There’s sadly only a small chance a child will openly tell someone that they are being abused.

A persistent reference to topics associated with human sexuality should definitely be an alarming signal. Also, if they resist associating or being with certain people, as well as excessive fearfulness at staying alone and the avoidance of changing clothing or bathing. Nightmares or resumption of bedwetting or thumbsucking are also signals that something is wrong.

In the case of very young children, it is a little easier, because they say things spontaneously. A child might speak of experiences that will worry an adult, even though the child may not understand that anything is wrong. It is important to pay attention to what our children say, at all ages.

Exceptional vigilance should be maintained by professionals -- social workers, teachers, directors of educational and care facilities -- those who have contact with children every day.

Symptoms of sexual harassment in 99% of cases are non-specific. This means that while they could indicate sexual abuse, they can also indicate something else. However, this is no reason not to react and inquire. Unfortunately, they are most commonly ignored.

MKA: What about teenagers? Are there disturbing behaviours we should look out for?

The main problem is the fact that adults automatically assume that teenagers are problematic: they are aggressive, act irrationally, disobey and do stupid things out of spite.

Parents often don’t bother to look for the source of aggression. They take their kid to a specialist and expect to pick them up all fixed, like a broken watch left with a clockmaker. If something bad is happening -- their teenager reaches for alcohol or drugs, becomes insolent and starts to isolate themselves -- parents put the blame on the child and try to stop them from causing any problems to adults.

MKA: How do teenage girls signal sexual abuse?

There are two common ways. The first one is a denial of their own sexuality and a lack of self care: girls start wearing baggy clothes and either cut their hair short or use their long hair to cover their faces. They only feel safe when their femininity is hidden and invisible to other people. The second group are teenage girls who seem to be saying: "Nothing can break me!". They come across as tough, foul-mouthed and cocky. But it’s only a pretence. They may begin to drink or use drugs as well. A disturbance in eating patterns or self-harming behaviour can also be signs of sexual abuse.

Most victims of sexual abuse are children who are neglected or overlooked by their parents. They can be easily deceived by a perpetrator’s false kindness and the kind of attention they never obtain from their family.

This is why the initial stage of therapy is providing the child with acceptance. We show them they’re valuable and safe -- no judgments or accusations. Breaking free from feeling worthless, guilty and shameful is necessary for their further treatment.

MKA: What happens when a child has been recognized as sexually abused and brought to you for treatment?

If the child has strong symptoms and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, we deal with these expressions of distress. We use cognitive-behavioral methods to help them deal with everyday life. We teach them ways to cope with anxiety and insomnia.

Then, we "process" what happened to the child. We do not constantly speak of what happened to the child. We simply give them a safe space in which to speak when they are ready. The biggest problem faced by children who have been sexually abused is that no one listens to them.

There is also a widespread belief that a child should not remember it or talk about it. But the fact that they do not talk about it does not mean that they do not carry it with them all the time. The more lonely and terrified the child is, the more they are in pain and the more a child needs to get it out.

MKA: What determines the length of therapy?

It depends on the child's sensitivity, current resources, the reaction of the environment to disclosure, the support of a person important to them, the type of relationship, and the relationship with the perpetrator or accompanying use of physical violence.

MKA: Do children sometimes come back to you years later when the memories start to resurface?

The child gets as much therapy as they can endure at any given stage of development. We work with them for the term of treatment, not their whole life. But we run open door therapy -- there is always the possibility of returning. And it happens. We do not treat this as a failure of treatment. Sexual abuse from childhood may come back to the adult sufferer in various forms -- sexual neurosis and other problems. But such things can be worked on through therapy.

Also important is the fact that when therapists are no longer in the child's life, parents have a key role to play. It is important that they do not treat the child as damaged forever.

MKA: And how should they treat them?

Many people -- parents, teachers and others -- do not know how to treat a sexually abused child. But it is crucial to remember that a child is a child no matter what they have lived through.

MKA: What’s the parents or guardians’ role in therapy?

It’s crucial, and that’s why the child’s treatment usually starts with our work with adults. If the abuse takes place within the family, it’s most likely committed by a male relative or by the mother’s partner. In such case we need to work with the mother first. Very often mothers of abused children are cross with their kids for staying quiet for so long (although children do talk, it’s parents who don’t listen). We provide  legal, psychological or psychiatric help and do our best to put the mother back on her feet and make her strong enough to take care of her “injured” child.

MKA:  If I suspect that a child is being sexually abused, should I go to the police?

We’re legally obligated to report the maltreatment of children, so yes, you should go to the police. You also need to consider what sort of intervention would be best for the child. Before you take appropriate steps, you should always consult a specialist; talk to a psychologist, a school therapist or call any of the child abuse helplines. They’ll provide you with a professional and necessary guidance.


Jolanta Zmarzlik -- is a therapist at the Dajemy Dzieciom Siłę (We Give Children Strength) foundation, specializing in diagnosis and therapy for children, adolescents and adults.

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach


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