Speaking with a young woman today, I heard a story I have heard far too many times.
This woman had been sexually abused as a child by a relative, but didn’t say anything out of fear and embarrassment. This relative went on to molest other children in the family until someone finally spoke out.
I’ve spoken to many individuals in the past who were molested by a family member and didn’t say anything not only out of fear and shame, but also because they thought that as long as the molester was perpetrating on them, he would leave their younger brothers, sisters or cousins alone.
In essence, they figured they would suffer through the abuse so that others wouldn’t have to.
The sad part is, in all of these cases, the molester went on to molest other children in the family anyway. In one case, there were three sisters all getting molested by the same uncle and neither knew about the other. All three reported that they didn’t say anything because they thought they were protecting the other sister from the abuse, not knowing that the other sisters were doing the exact same thing.
It was only when this uncle, after years of abusing these sisters, abused another member of the family that he got caught and is now serving time in prison. By then at least four family members had been abused over the period of several years.
The Threat From Within
We teach our children to be cautious of strangers. We believe that the greatest threat to our child comes from outside of our homes and inner-circles.
1 in 4 women, and 1 in 6 men report being sexually abused as a child. Over 90% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, loves and trusts. Family members, family friends, teachers, religious leaders and coaches are some of the biggest offenders.
There are many families who have this type of secret, and some will even tell their children, “Stay away from uncle Bob” because they know they have a perpetrator in their family who for one reason or another is still around.
I even worked with one family who hid their family member’s pedophilic activity, partially out of embarrassment and partially out of a family’s natural response to try to protect each other. This family member went on to molest at least three children before being sent to prison.
Why Do Children Keep Abuse A Secret
As adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse will tell you, there are many reasons why children will endure sexual abuse for years, some for a lifetime, without telling soul.
For one, children aim to please. They want to make someone they love and trust happy and are often willing to do whatever the person tells them to do.
Abusers also often coach their victims not to tell anyone. Sometimes this is done with threats of violence towards them or other members in their family. Other times it is done with the threat that the child themselves will get in trouble if they tell.
Shame, embarrassment and confusion along with countless other feelings and thoughts can keep a child from telling anyone about the abuse.
Most survivors of childhood abuse I’ve spoken to waited until they were were in their late teens or adulthood before they felt ready to share what they experienced as a child. Many reported that they were afraid that no one would believe them.
How To Help Your Child Break The Silence
We have to teach children the difference between a secret and a surprise. That may sound too simple, but as a start, it is very powerful.
- Teach them that a surprise is supposed to be about something fun, such as a birthday gift or special party for a friend.
- Teach them that secrets are something kids shouldn’t keep to themselves, especially secrets that involve touches of private body parts or anything that makes the child feel uncomfortable.
- Encourage your child not to keep secrets from you.
- Tell them that touches to private body parts should never be a secret.
- Let them know that if someone tells them to keep a secret, especially someone older than them (including older/bigger kids), they should tell you or another trusted adult immediately.
- If a friend tells them a secret, let your child know they should share it with you (the other child could be asking for help).
- Let them know that it’s never their fault if someone touches a private body part and they will never get in trouble if they tell.
Abuse of all kind (i.e., physical, sexual, emotional and neglect) flourishes under the veil of silence. It’s beyond time that we break that silence.