A few years back, the Bollywood movie “Highway” made headlines as it portrayed the plight of the protagonist who had been abused by her own uncle when she was nine years old.
The traumatized child was told to be silent exposing the sickening hypocrisy of society. Towards the end of the movie as an adult, she voices the truth and chooses to leave her home. This situation could have been easily avoided if adults had listened and equipped her to protect herself.
Child Abuse is Real
Why do we feel so uncomfortable to speak about or listen to such events? Sexual abuse of children is real and more common than we are ready to accept. It should not be swept under the carpet. We can’t expect children to protect themselves without our help.
In her book, Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries, author Alice Miller while explaining the deep impact of child abuse says, “To forget and to repress would be a good solution if there were no more to it than that. But repressed pain blocks emotional life and leads to physical symptoms. And the worst thing is that although the feelings of the abused child have been silenced at the point of origin, that is, in the presence of those who caused the pain, they find their voice when the battered child has children of his own.”
Abusive, harmful or unwanted childhood experiences can create feelings of guilt and shame. If these issues are ignored and never addressed they get carried into adulthood causing immense trauma that may lead to physical and psychological problems.
Guilt and Shame
Shame refers to thoughts and feelings about how flawed you are. It eats into a person’s psyche deeply to make him feel ashamed for anything and everything. Feelings of shame can be easily distinguished. Anyone who is struggling with shame will be afraid of making eye contact, look down while walking and consciously try to hide.
Guilt makes a person feel wrong. Whatever may happen, it feels like a grave mistake, an unforgivable error or seriously messed up. A person who harbors guilt apologizes quite frequently and even for no mistake on his part.
Child abuse creates shame that leads to guilt. However, a child must understand that there is no need to feel guilty for bad things that happened to him without his understanding and which were beyond his control.
1. Educating Early – Label Body Parts Correctly
Suja Sukumaran, Sr. Coordinator Advocacy, and Integration Support, Enfold Proactive Health Trust, suggests that parents should start teaching about body parts and labeling them appropriately from the age of three years. This helps the child mention them correctly when the need arises.
“Teaching the child to express if something is hurting physically, such as saying that an ‘ouch’ pain happened or a ‘boo boo’ for pain, so the child can convey in its language to the parents if something has happened.”
Sajitha Rasheed, Founder and Chief Mentor at Mind Mojo also believes that educating about safe and unsafe touch should start early. “For kindergarten and primary level, we show pictures of children and explain the shorts /skirt area, chest and mouth.”
2. Safe, Unsafe and Unwanted Touch
A physical touch can be safe, unsafe or unwanted. Clarifying and distinguishing between these touches helps children comprehend and share any incidence correctly.
Suja says, “Just as we teach children how to cross the street safely right from childhood the same way, safe and unsafe touch should be taught to children in age-appropriate ways.”
The first step is identifying and naming the body parts clearly without any sense of shame or discomfort. Children are extremely sensitive and easily catch the parent’s embarrassment. They need to be told that some body parts can get hurt by unsafe touch.
“It is important for them to come and tell their parents or someone they trust if they are getting hurt by anyone in their genitals or any other area of their body in an unsafe manner,” Suja explains.
A touch may be safe, but if it is unwelcome or uncomfortable, it should not be tolerated. For example, it could be a kiss on the cheek, or lips, touching the body or even pinching the cheeks. It could be the way the child is carried or made to sit on the lap or hugged when the child resists it but is unable to verbalize it.
Unsafe touches mostly have an element of secrecy where the abuser makes a deal with the child that it is their secret and that the child should not share this secret. A child needs to know those body secrets are not okay.
“A child must be wary of phrases like ‘let’s play a game; don’t tell anyone; it’s a secret between us,” says Sajitha, “If the child experiences discomfort and doesn’t like it, we talk about the feeling level discomfort.”
3. The Power of “No!”
Highlighting the power of “No,” Suja says, “It is important to teach the child about safe/unsafe touch first and then to say ‘NO’ when something is unwelcome whether safe, unsafe or unwanted. Once a child is empowered to say ‘NO’ then he feels more confident if the touch is unwanted as well.“
Sajitha emphasizes that kids should understand that only the mother/father/grandmother are supposed to touch them while giving them a bath. A doctor can do so when he/she is examining them in the presence of the parents. If at times anyone does or even asks the child to touch in these areas, the child should immediately report it to a trusted person.
4. Creating Personal Boundaries
We should teach child to set distinat an early age. Creating a personal boundary helps children to protect themselves in uneasy situations and not give in to anyone forcing to hug or kiss.
“Instilling confidence in the child and teaching that he has the permission to say ‘no’ to any uncomfortable touch is required,” this one way of setting the boundary, says Sajitha.
We need to teach children that if respecting boundaries of others is essential, respecting their own boundaries is equally crucial. “Understanding the importance of personal space and not let others encroach is important,” she adds.
5. Facing Scary Situations
If a child finds himself in a terrifying situation, he need not stay. He should know that it is correct to go away from that person or leave that location if he feels uncomfortable.
Suja suggests these three actions for scary scenarios, ‘Go’, ‘Tell’ and say ‘No’.” Kids need to learn immediately to raise a noise, say ‘NO’ and run away from the place as soon as possible,” she adds.
He needs to be instructed to reach a trusted adult and share the experience without hesitation or fear. Any adult to whom the child runs to should comfort and appreciate the child for speaking bravely about it. “We should assure the child that it is the fault of the abuser and that the perpetrator will not trouble the child again,” advises Suja. Reassuring them and instilling confidence reduces the trauma of such incidences.
When a child withdraws into his or her shell, is unable to speak or share whatever happened with parents it is best to consult a counselor.
“Children may sometimes hesitate to tell their parents but might eventually talk to a trained counselor or a child psychologist,” Suja explains. Parents can approach counselors experienced in dealing with these issues. Trained and experienced NGO workers can also help.
Symptoms of Child Abuse
Child abuse is a traumatic experience that may manifest both as a physical symptom and psychological symptom. A sudden change in behavior that includes becoming silent, aggressive or disturbed could be a symptom of abuse. Parents should be wary of any change and take it seriously.
There are many symptoms and signs of child abuse depending factors like age, family and other individual factors. A young child may express his feelings differently than an adolescent. Sajitha advises parents to be vigilant of the child’s demeanor, “Do not brush aside any change in the behaviour of the child.”
Common signs of child abuse
- Sudden change in behavior
- Fear of a place or person
- Stranger anxiety
- Fear of being alone
- Unusual crankiness
- Refusal to go to a particular place
- Excessive irritability
- Falling grades
- Lack of concentration
- Unable to trust in adulthood
- Pain during urination
- Soreness/redness, swelling in genital areas
- Don’t assume that it will never happen to your child
- Seek out information about dealing with it proactively
- Reach out to school counselors or NGOs
- Research on the Internet to know how to protect, prevent, report and assist kids who were or may be targets of abuse
- Shift the blame on the abuser and re-assure your child
- Most of the times, the child faces abuse from a known person either a family member or a friend.
- The abuser could be from either gender
- Believe in your child when he expresses distress
- Comfort your child instead of blaming him
- Remove the child from the situation and away from the predator
- Emphasize the child to understand that he is not guilty
- In case of an assault take the child for a medical exam and also speak with a counselor if you suspect abuse
- Reach out Childline number 1098
- Remember an aware parent can protect the child.
Suja advocates schools to have a child protection policy and child protection committee so that they can address any case of abuse that may happen in school. It is important to have awareness campaigns to sensitize teachers, staff, parents, and children about child sexual abuse.
Empowering the child with knowledge prevents many such events and saves many children from this trauma. Always, remember that a secured child becomes a confident adult.
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