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Through a mother’s eyes

Protecting your children from child abusers

Author: Mary Keating

For:  Family Living Magazine

Date:  August 2004

2345 words (including sidebars)

Editor’s Note: The two mothers interviewed asked to maintain their anonymity. Both mothers have agreed to allow their stories and their words to be published. For the purposes of this article, I have changed their names and the ages of the children.

A mother witnesses her child’s first steps. A mother feels the pain when her child falls for the first time. A mother hears when her child speaks their first words.

And, a mother’s heart breaks – her eyes fill with tears and guilt encompasses her – when her child tells her he has been sexually abused.

“To this day, my hands are sweaty, I am so nauseous. It was like someone just took a bat and smacked me right in the face. I was so stunned,” says Sally, whose daughters were 8 and 10 years old when their step-father molested them.

“When it happened and (my kids) told me, of course, I went go through the whole process of ‘this isn’t happening in my family’ and ‘we’re going to fix this and everything is going to be OK.’ Basically, you don’t want to deal with it,” says Sally.

“The thing I want to scream is that it doesn’t go away. You have to deal with it.”

Sexual abuse of a child is a complex subject causing not only discomfort and, for many, denial.  That denial shields parents and others from unwanted or undesirable information.

However, when parents hear that one in three girls and one in six boys will be victims of sexual abuse, the shield lowers and they begin asking questions. 

Most initial questions can be answered by looking at the four tools of prevention.

The four tools of prevention begin with knowing that 90 percent of child molesters are someone the child and parents trust.  They are not strangers.  The second tool is being able to see the early warning signs.  Parents must know there is a complex grooming process leading to sexual abuse.  They need to know abusers are skilled manipulators who prey on the trust and friendship of people.  Knowing how abusers operate will allow parents to see the early warning signs. The third tool is listening and trusting basic instincts.  Denial inhibits intuitive responses.  And the final tool is talking to your children about sexual abuse. Incorporate sex abuse safety into standard safety instructions.

KNOW ABOUT ABUSE

Both Laura-whose son was molested by a close family friend – and Sally learned about sexual abuse the hard way.

These two mothers separately acknowledge if they had known 90 percent of child sexual abusers were family members or close friends, if they had known there is a grooming process that often leads to sexual abuse, they would have seen the warning signs more clearly.

“The guys who do this are not scary-looking strangers. They are people who are admired by the community. They are hard workers and stay very busy in different organizations in the community. They have a lot of friends. People respect them. They are what you would think are good people and you believe them until you see a reason not to,” says Laura.

Statistically, one in 20 men will abuse a child.

“Nationally, Pocatello is about average,” says Kathy Downes, Clinical Director of Pocatello’s Bright Tomorrows. “The odds are high that we all know at least one or two child molesters and don’t even know it.”

Recognizing the warning signs, realizing how children become ensnared in the spiral of abuse, and understanding the complexities of sexual abuse serve as a second step in prevention.

Laura’s husband had recently died and a close friend of the family took Laura’s son under his wing.

“I thought, wow, this is nice of him to pick up where his dad left off ,” Laura says. “I do remember having an uncomfortable feeling. Sometimes I did not like it when he took my son on outings and I didn’t really know why.  I wish I had listened to that nagging feeling.  I still experience moments of guilt,” says Laura. 

Abusers work diligently to build a child’s trust and friendship. They also build a trusting relationship with the victim’s family.

“One mother said to me, ‘didn’t your son know better?’” says Laura.

The question demonstrates lack of knowledge about how abusers groom children and how abusers operate.

“I asked my son if he ever thought or felt like it was wrong,”  Laura says. “And, he would say, ‘Well yea mom, I knew. I thought it was wrong, but he was a friend of ours. And I didn’t know what to think.’”

“Kids have all these internal feelings they are fighting. Kids feel as if that person wouldn’t lead them astray,” says Laura. “My son was ashamed. He didn’t want me to know’ she adds.

The situation with Laura’s son is not unique. Offenders are often authority figures kids look up to and respect, according to Downes.

In Laura’s case, the abuser preyed upon her son’s moral, ethical and religious background. The abuser used guilt to prevent the boy from talking.

“After the abuse had started, the abuser would say things to my son like, ‘you can’t tell anyone or I will lose my wife and my family.’ He even told my son he would be in trouble because he did it,” says Laura.

Something people don’t realize is that not only is the abuse psychologically harmful and physically harmful, but the human body is wired to desire those feelings.  Whether or not the situation is appropriate, bodies still respond physiologically.

Downes equates the physiological reaction to that of cutting an onion. We try to stop our eyes from watering, but our eyes still fill with tears. That is the way our bodies are made.

“Offenders make a point to make it enjoyable for the victims,” says Downes.  “And our bodies automatically respond.”

Abusers begin slowly.  They may introduce alcohol, drugs, pornography, dirty jokes or innocent touching to see how a child responds and to test whether the child will tell.  Once the abuser believes a child won’t tell, they gradually increase the touching or game playing.  And suddenly, sexual abuse occurs and many victims are unsure of how it all happened.

“It is like a spiral and the kids get caught. Once in the spiral, it is increasingly more difficult to see a way to get out,” says Downes.

WATCH AND LISTEN

Children may not be able to make it stop.  Children may not be able to tell someone directly about the abuse.  But children reveal many non-verbal clues.

For Laura, her son wasn’t going out and doing things. He was spending a lot of time in his room. He didn’t want to associate with the family.

“I thought, well that’s ok, it’s just a teenage thing,” Laura says. “But, I did notice his grades were starting to drop. Looking back, it was obvious something was going on.”

Are children fearful of or suspicious of adults? Are they afraid to be alone or reluctant to visit or see certain family members or people? Are they unusually sensitive about their bodies or require a need for privacy? Are they showing marked changes in appearance, in how they are grooming themselves? Have they displayed self-destructed behaviors? Have their eating or sleeping patterns sifted? Are they craving attention, needing continual reassurance, or suffering from low self-esteem?

When normal patterns shift, parents need to question why and look for answers. Don’t deny something is wrong.

Denial serves as a safeguard for unwanted information.  And, parents often believe abuse won’t happen to their child. 

Sally never dreamed that her husband would sexually molest her two daughters.

“I had my girls and he had custody of his kids,” she said. “So there was this whole dynamic of me being the mother figure in the home there and trying to balance that with telling my step-children about their father and what he had done to his step-daughters.”

“How do you tell someone that his or her father did this?  How do you deal with your husband, the man that you love, being a child molester? It was so complex. I didn’t know what to do. And how could I put the children through yet another divorce? I didn’t know how to handle it,” says Sally.

LISTEN TO YOUR GUT

Intuition communicates with different people in different ways, sending any of the following messages: nagging  feelings, persistent thoughts, dark humor, anxiety, curiosity, hunches, gut feelings, doubt, hesitation, suspicion, apprehension, fear.

“Intuition about your children is always right in at least two ways: It is always based on something, and it always has your child’s best interest at heart,” writes Gavin de Becker, author of “Protecting the Gift” and a leading expert on child abuse. “And the fact that we make an excuse for someone’s behavior is a sure sign that we perceive something wrong with the behavior.

“You’ve gotta go with your gut feeling.,” says Sally, “If it makes you feel uneasy, there is a reason you are feeling uneasy. Something is not right, something is not jiving.”

TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN

Parents instruct children not to talk to strangers. They outline plans for answering the phone and the door. They have rules for crossing the street. But, do they educate children about secret touching?

Secret touching should never remain a secret. 

“People definitely need to know that any type of inappropriate touching is illegal,” says Sally.  “It might not appear to be a big deal, but you would not tolerate someone touching you.  Don’t allow them to touch your children.”

Downes suggests parents provide examples of things that someone might use to force children to keep secrets. Things like candy, money, special privileges, threats, fear or punishments are often used by molesters. It is a good idea to play “what if” games with your children on a regular basis. Also, let children know you want them to tell you immediately if something should happen no matter what anyone tells them.  Make certain they know you will not be angry or punish them if they tell.

“Most adolescents want their primary information about sexual issues from their parents,” says Downes adding that when talking to children about their sexuality, parents need to teach children to respect those feelings they have in their bodies.

“Tell your kids that there are people who touch private parts and do things that aren’t ok and make us feel weird, confused, or funny. Usually when someone touches private parts it is someone we like and spend a lot of time with. It is not a stranger.”

“Tell them, ‘kids who tell are heroes!’ They can help others,” says Laura.

Abuse affects many people.

“There are victims of sexual abuse and that is bad enough,” says Sally after an interview filled with anger, tears and frustration. “And you never know if or when they will recover. But the victim’s family and friends are impacted also. There are the parents of victims who feel victimized as well because they fell like ‘I should have known I should have protected the …”

“It is like a rock thrown in a pond. The ripples go on and on. And the only way to stop the rippling is to stop the abuse – no matter how difficult or scary it may be to confront the abuser.”

 SIDEBAR

THE DANGER OF PREVIOUS SAFETY MEASURES

 Stranger Danger is the bedrock of child safety.  Big mistake.

“This Rule actually reduces safety in several ways,” write Gavin de Becker, author of Protecting the Git and a leading expect on child sexual abuse. “One is that within the message: Never Talk to Strangers (because they may harm you) is the implication that people you know will not harm you. If stranger equals danger, then friend equals safety.”

 Parents really want to prevent their children from going somewhere with someone they don’t know.

“You tell (children) not to talk to strangers, which parents should still teach their children, but it is not strangers that sexually molest your children. It is friends and family. It is someone very close,” says Laura, the mother of a 13-year-old boy who was molested by a close friend of family here in Pocatello.

Stranger danger is an important part of education, but it is only one part.

Parents often teach children to locate a police office if they are in trouble. More often than not, an officer is not in view when a child is in need.

“A better alternative is to instruct your children to “find a mommy person,’” says Kathy Downes, Clinical Director of Pocatello’s Bright Tomorrows.

According to Becker, 90 percent of sexual abuse is committed by someone the children know, not by a stranger.  People who molest children can be parents, stepparents, relatives, friends, teachers, clergymen, baby sitters, coaches, anyone who comes in contact with children.

Molesters are usually someone a family likes and trusts.  Your children need to know you trust them more, that you believe them if they tell you they have been inappropriately touched no matter whom did the touching.

In order to protect children, parents must rely on basic instincts.

“Even young children do not inherently trust everyone. There are people they recoil from, and that reaction is something to cherish and nurture, not something to force them to ignore (i.e. ‘apologize to Mr. Ames for not being friendly,’ or ‘give Mrs. Evans a hug right now’).

“Accordingly, when a child feels ill at ease with someone, that’s an opportunity to explore why.”

Note from Author:  While researching preventative measures, I watched parents shift their eyes and physically distance themselves when I mentioned the subject. However, when they heard that one in three girls and one in six boys are victims, they quickly re-engaged. They began asking questions, no one, but hundreds.

Parents are hungry for information on how to protect their children.