Adapted by Diane Riggs from Beyond Sexual Abuse: The Healing Power of Adoptive Families, published by Three Rivers Adoption Council in cooperation with Wayne Duehn, PhD, Sherry Anderson, MSW, and Kirsti Adkins, MPH.
Parents teach pre-schoolers about good and bad touch to give them tools for avoiding and reporting sexual abuse. But foster and adoptive parents often don´t have the luxury of trying to prevent initial abuse. When a sexually abused child joins their family, the challenge is to provide a safe, healing environment, and teach the child about ways to safely show affection and deal with sexuality.
Some child welfare researchers estimate that as many as 80 percent of children in foster care have experienced sexual abuse of some kind. Sexual abuse involves activity with or interaction between a child and an older person where the intent is to sexually arouse one or both of the parties or control the child sexually.
Children entering foster care or moving from care to adoption are most likely to have experienced systemic abuse. Commonly associated with chaotic homes where children are not protected, this type of sexual abuse often starts when children are very young and is perpetrated by a parent or other adults who move in and out of the home.
Was My Child Sexually Abused?
If your child´s worker does not mention sexual abuse, and records say nothing, did your child escape this form of abuse? Maybe. Maybe not. Sexual abuse often goes unnoticed and unrecorded. Children are often reluctant to talk about abuse due to feelings of guilt and shame, or fear that the abuser will punish them. Few abusers confess to their crimes when confronted by protection workers.
Initially, a sexually abused child´s behavior may mirror that of children who have experienced physical abuse or neglect. Children who have been abused sexually may be angry, be confused about parental roles and responsibilities, mistrust adults, and be depressed or hyperactive. Symptoms specific to sexual abuse include sensitivity to touch (avoiding touch or being seductively clingy); sensitivity to exposing one´s body (being very opposed to exposure or eager to wear scant clothing); and sexual behavior or knowledge that is out of keeping with the child´s age.
Bottom line, even if sexual abuse is not disclosed in the child´s history, foster and adoptive parents must be prepared to deal with issues of sexuality and sexual abuse.
Creating a Healing Environment
Supportive discussions about abuse can start the healing process, but children will not talk until they feel safe. And, while you should tell a child that she is safe, the child may need time to see that your actions consistently reinforce your verbal promises of safety.
If your child shows signs of prior abuse by, say, inappropriately touching a sibling, take advantage of the chance to teach him about proper behavior. Calmly, you might say, “I know you want to feel close to your sister, but that is not the way we get close in this family. Let´s talk about how we show love in this family.” If the inappropriate touching happens again, you could say (again, calmly), “Remember when we talked about showing love in this family? What you are doing now [name the inappropriate behavior] is not the way we get close in this family. Can you remember some of the ways we show love?”
Because sexually abused children are used to relating to others sexually, and being valued for their sexuality, non-sexual behaviors that healthy families use to express affection and find comfort may be utterly foreign. Re-educating an abused child about these alien norms takes persistence and patience, and openness to questions and feelings. Avoid angrily scolding the child for sexual misbehavior, or making negative comments that could cause him to question his safety or withdraw.
Talking About Abuse
Some children may not be able to talk about the abuse for a long time, but may express intense feelings of anger or sadness. When a child exhibits these emotions, validate the child´s feelings and reinforce the message that the child is not at fault for past events and is now safe. You might say, “I know something terrible happened to you. It was not your fault. You are safe now. We love you and are going to do all we can to protect you.”
This situation also gives you an opening to invite further conversation: “I know you were hurt, and I know you feel angry. When you want to tell me what happened, I am ready to listen.” Or try a more direct approach: “I am sad that something terrible happened to you, and I want to understand what happened so I can help you feel better. I wonder if someone touched you and hurt you.”
If your child is not ready to talk, let the subject drop. Never try to force a discussion about past abuse. When your child is finally ready to share, make the experience as comfortable and supportive for the child as possible:
- Use a private setting. The child´s privacy has been invaded, and you must show respect for the child´s privacy.
- Assume an open posture and position yourself at or below the child´s level. You need to look receptive and approachable. If you want to touch or hold the child, ask permission and frame the request as your need. For example, “I feel so sad for you, I´d just like to give you a hug. Would that be okay with you?” The word “just” tells the child the limit of touching requested. She decides if she gets a hug, some other contact, or no contact.
- Control your emotions. Under-react, but don´t minimize the problem. If the child thinks anger is directed at her, it will reinforce her guilt and shame.
- Encourage sharing. “I´m glad you are telling me about this, and that you trust me enough to share. I also know that this is very hard for you, but what happened to you is a part of your life and I want to know about all of you. Nothing you tell me can change my love for you.”
- Verbally reassure the child. Reiterate that the abuse is not the child´s fault. “Adults are responsible for what they do to children, and you could not have done anything differently. You are a child, and you did nothing wrong.”
- Ask questions. Though it may be hard to stifle shock and disbelief, show that you really want to know what happened by calmly asking questions about the child´s story.
- Give the child permission to have feelings. Sexual abuse victims often experience a mix of guilt, shame, fear, and pleasure. Let the child know that these feelings are normal.
- Universalize the experience. Let your child know that many other children—girls and boys—have endured the same type of abuse.
- Believe. Children rarely make up detailed stories about sexual abuse, and if you are the first person the child tells, your immediate response is vitally important. A negative reaction will reinforce the child´s low self-image and damage chances for healing.
Subjects for Ongoing Communication
Even if your child never shares details about past abuse, keep lines of communication open. No matter how much it goes against your personality or philosophy, you must tackle the topic of sexuality honestly, repeatedly, and without flinching.
A sexually abused child must repeatedly be taught and reminded about:
- Boundaries. Sexually abused children need to know right away that they can set personal boundaries for touching that other family members will respect. They must also learn that they have no right to invade other children´s boundaries with sexual touching, and that they have no role in meeting their parents´ or other adults´ sexual needs.
- Sex. Though sexually abused children may be all too well informed about certain sexual activities, they may be clueless about basic anatomy and sexual functioning. Review the basics of male and female anatomy, normal sexual development, healthy sexual expression, and how babies are conceived.
- Ways to express affection. As suggested above, sexually abused children must learn non-sexual ways to show affection. Parents can model various types of loving contact such as side hugs, pats on the shoulder, or hand holding.
Discussions in Adolescence
With the onset of puberty, children who were sexually abused may find themselves reliving emotions evoked by the original abuse. At these times, foster and adoptive families must be willing to talk openly and frequently about developmental changes in puberty, the impact of past trauma, and appropriate ways to handle and express sexuality. Discussion topics include:
- Being responsible for one´s own body. Repeat and model the message that everyone is responsible for his or her own body and behaviors, and that women and men can control sexual impulses. Make rules and set expectations to help your teen take responsibility for his actions in social situations.
- Nurturing a healthy non-sexual identity. Because sexually abused children may believe that sexuality is their one asset, parents must help them develop other interests and talents in childhood, and support healthy extracurricular activities in adolescence. Research indicates that youth with a wide variety of interests and activities are less likely to be sexually active. Activities provide chances for building self-esteem and allow teens to express their individuality in non-sexual ways.One mother of a teen with sexual abuse history channeled her daughter´s interest in having a baby to mothering a dog and gerbil. The girl must arrange for the animals´ care when she´s away; no one cares for the animals unless she asks them to. When the dog needs walking in the morning, the teen must put the dog´s needs above her desire to stay in bed. By supporting her teen´s use of pets for care giving and reciprocal affection, the mother has prevented early motherhood and its more serious struggles.
- Forming a healthy sexual identity. Children who were abused by members of the same sex may question their sexual orientation. Help them understand that prior sexual encounters do not necessarily dictate sexual orientation, and that feeling good about one´s identity as a multi-faceted man or woman is the key to healthy relationships.
- Establishing healthy sexual relationships. Sexually abused children need adult role models who treat each other with respect and affection. Parents can provide examples of proper interaction and reinforce the family´s sexual norms (“In this family, only dad and I have sex, and we only have sex with each other.”). Candid discussions about sex and relationships as portrayed in movies and on television can also help to keep life in perspective.
Support for Parents
For parents whose upbringing or beliefs make open discussions about sex very difficult, outside support—therapy or training—may make them better able to address issues related to their children´s abuse history. Adoptive parent support groups can also help. Parents who have experience with sexually abused children can advise a struggling parent how to discuss sexual abuse with children, and how best to respond to certain behaviors.
Parents may also wish to have the child see a therapist. A therapist who is versed in adoption and sexual abuse issues can be a tremendous ally in helping children heal.
With support, foster and adoptive parents can help sexually abused children to survive and become healthy adults. Nurturing families who address the realities of child sexual abuse can break the cycle.