A Child’s Voice in the Midst of Abuse
Child sexual abuse is a tragic and difficult topic to address.
It is an issue that many people would rather not discuss. However, from the standpoint of a helping professional, it is highly important to understand the experiences of abused children and the factors that influence abuse perpetration. Therefore, the topic is studied deeply by those who desire to help these children.
But why should someone who isn’t a helping professional want to know about child sexual abuse?
It is common:
- Estimates indicate that nearly 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys experience sexual abuse (estimates differ depending upon the specific study parameters)
It has lasting effects:
- Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, promiscuity, etc.
Caring/loving adults can make a difference:
- Early intervention can prevent some of the long term effects
With this in mind, I recently reviewed a landmark 2016 study (Jackson, Newall and Backett-Milburn) in which children’s personal reports of abuse were analyzed. Typically child abuse research uses adult’s reports of their experiences as children. However, this current study done in Scotland uses children’s own words and descriptions of their experiences.
ChildLine Scotland (CLS) is a free, confidential phone-in helpline for children. Children may call the helpline for a variety of reasons, but sexual abuse is always within the top 5 reasons for a call. Due to the anonymous nature of these calls and the confidentiality involved, children are often very open about their experiences. From almost 3,000 calls, the researchers gleaned important descriptions of the children’s experiences of abuse. Some important highlights of what they learned are these:
- The most commonly reported perpetrator of sexual abuse (38% of cases) was a biological parent – in the majority of these cases (70%) it was a biological father (debunking the myth of “stranger danger”)
- Only a small percentage of the perpetrators were strangers (7%)
- Nearly double the number of girls reported abuse compared to boys.
- A large number of children stated that they had already told someone about the abuse prior to calling the helpline. However, nearly 1/3 were not believed.
How kids talk about abuse
Often children used the term “rape” to describe their abuse, despite meaning many things by this term. More commonly, children used euphemisms to describe their experience – and these were typically very explicit, using very adult language.
How kids cope
Children did not have healthy coping strategies. They engaged in self-harm or suicidal behavior, ran away, tried not to think about it, etc. At times, however, they resisted.
How Perpetrators Behave
Violence or threats of violence towards others were used as means to keep children quiet about the abuse. When children resisted, violence would be used as a punishment. Perpetrators also coerced or talked children into complying by using gifts, telling them the abuse was a game or even convincing them that it was normal.
Effects of Abuse
Children described experiencing fear, nightmares, depression, eating disorders, relationship problems, etc. They described feeling “cheap,” “embarrassed,” “worthless” and “numb.”
Sense of Responsibility
Many children struggled with feeling at fault for the abuse. They worried that something they did or said brought it on. The also expressed a great deal of shame.
Again, why is this research important – especially for those individuals not in the helping professions?
Understanding children’s experiences from their uncensored personal reports helps us know how to help.
1. Listen – children may be afraid to disclose abuse, but often want to.
2. Validate – the feelings and experiences of abused children need to be acknowledged (they need to know an adult cares, hears and believes what happened to them was wrong)
3. Observe – be aware of an abused child’s coping strategies and provide healthy strategies when possible (ie: talking about their feelings/experiences, spending time with caring family/friends, finding enjoyable activities, listening to uplifting music, etc.)
4. Reach Out – abused children often need mentors and safe adults in their lives. They may be a part of the foster care system or in struggling single-parent families. Big Brothers Big Sisters (www.bbbs.org) is a great way to mentor at-risk children and youth.
A Christian Perspective
Children are loved by God and God never desires that a child be harmed by sexual abuse. God does not engage in evil nor does he tempt others to do evil. (James 1:13).
See John Piper’s series on evil – http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-god-author-sin.
However, we live in a world where sin and evil exist. Yet, we also live in a world where goodness and mercy are experienced at the hands of others and through God’s sovereignty. The “problem of evil” has long been a theological topic of discussion. To come to terms with evil’s existence, we must understand God’s character. God loves us (1 John 4), so much that He sent his son to pay for our sins and bring us into relationship with Him (John 3:16). His love is never-ending and reaches as far as to touch a child in the midst of suffering at the hands of evil.
The “Father’s Love Letter” does an amazing job of explaining His love for us: http://www.fathersloveletter.com/
Click to Tweet this: God Loves You – http://www.fathersloveletter.com/ See more: http://wp.me/p5ZGVV-9x
Why would a loving God allow a child to be harmed by abuse? There’s no easy answer to this question. Yet we do know this: “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed…” Psalm 10:17
Our solid hope and foundation is this: one day, in Heaven, there will be no more tears, no more evil and no more abuse. (Check out my Bible Study blog here.)
Until next time – Veola
Limitations of this study:
- Reports of children were taken by helpline callers and recorded in writing. For this study, the information was then broken down and interpreted by the researchers. Some of the results may be biased based upon researchers’ interpretations.
- The research was done in Scotland and may not relate to individuals in other cultures.
References and further reading:
Jackson, S., Newall, E., & Backett-Milburn, K. (2015). Children’s narratives of sexual abuse. Child & Family Social Work, 20(3), 322-332. doi:10.1111/cfs.12080
Pereda, N., Guilera, G., Forns, M., & Gómez-Benito, J. (2009). The international epidemiology of child sexual abuse: A continuation of Finkelhor (1994). Child Abuse & Neglect, 33(6), 331-342. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2008.07.007
John Piper’s series on evil – http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-god-author-sin.
Father’s Love Letter – http://www.fathersloveletter.com/
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