If only you had known the signs…right? Would you have still heard the cries? Maybe if you knew- you could see? These are your questions answered.
The crazy thing about sexual abuse, child trauma or anything that exists in silence is the harsh reality that even in that cloak of silence, the desperate cries of a victim are always there- screaming loudly- right in front of us. Sometimes the scream is so subtle, we cannot hear a thing… but I promise you the victim is screaming, begging for help and desperately trying to be free from what is happening to them.
So how can you tell if sexual abuse is happening? What are the behavioural indicators that something is not right?
To break this up- I will create three separate blogs regarding the signs of Sexual Abuse. Why? Besides being extremely complex, there are more than just the signs to look for. So apologies in advance for the long reads, but I don’t believe it would be fair to anyone to who is suffering in silence to only give you a snippet. There are also the why’s behind a victims behaviour that are important to understand. I hope to help you see some of them through this blog.
Remember, every situation is different, some behaviours are more ingrained than others, and sometimes, even if we look for the signs, they can be missed. Some indicators may also be symptomatic of other types of trauma and do not generally occur as a singular entity, but are usually coupled with other types of behaviours, and or conditions.
From what I know of my own experience (which you can find some information HERE) and many I have spoken to, a sexual abuse survivor in their desperate battle is ALWAYS willing someone to see, if only they don’t have to say it out loud, and if only they don’t have to feel that guilt and shame. They ache for those chains to be broken and someone to make it stop.
I know, I screamed as loud as I could and yet had no words. I felt like I had no power and I was completely ashamed of who I was and what was happening to me. I wanted to tell. I longed to utter the words to my parents… but I was crippled with fear… learnt from a well seasoned predator.
So how does a survivor or victim talk when they are not using their words? This is a fairly extensive look, but I wanted to cover as much as I could-and a little about the why! This is of course not exhaustive either… So lets do this…
Let’s start with the behavioural signs of Sexual Abuse.
- Withdrawal: (very common) – Victim becomes silent, recluse, non committing, clinginess in toddlers, regressive behaviour including bed wetting (when they normally wouldn’t) will either run from home (if things happen in the home or child feels unsafe) or will isolate themselves at home. (This all really depends on age)
- Shower frequently: Often a victim of abuse will feel dirty and the feeling of having a shower will wash that feeling of shame away. Sometimes even not showering at all…
- Detailed and intrinsic understanding of sexual behaviour: A child who is being sexually abused is being exposed to any number of sexual activities, imagery, and grooming behaviour. It goes without saying that they would have a greater understanding of sexual type behaviour. They may also have new names for their private parts. Without getting too complicated, children should know the correct terminology for their anatomy- i.e. Penis and Vagina. The reason is because when giving any kind of evidence, or if they are ever in a position where they need to talk about what has happened to them, they can be very clear and concise about what’s occurred.
- Sexual themes in drawings, play and conversations: There are many thoughts here. Children express emotions freely through creativity. Furthermore, children who are told to keep secrets need an avenue of expression, which can come out in play. It also comes back to the nature and nurture debate, and that the behaviour is learnt. How do they know to do this if they have not been taught? They may also exhibit signs of sexual abuse through mimicking sexual behaviour with stuffed animals.
- Feelings of anger:
- Delinquent behaviour- acting out or no regard for the laws and/or boundaries. Sometimes this is because they feel unvalued and unloved. It can be about attention, but also a child who experiences abuse often copes by becoming numb. Engaging in crime can produce an adrenaline response… then they feel something. Something is better than feeling nothing. This is also one of the reasons a victim may choose to cut.
- Physically Violent- As above, but also as an expression of anger and emotion they don’t know how to displace. Depending on the abuse they receive it is possible that it is learnt, but more often than not, these victims are projecting an internal emotion.
- Aggressive behaviour– Again, refer to the above. May also be a way to avoid the abuse… (In a very twisted way, I have had experiences where victims have been groomed in such a way that only good behaviour is rewarded, but to get the “good” thing, they need to do a certain act, being “naughty” or aggressive can mean that abuse is avoided, if the abuse is not then used as a punishment. In a round about way… a child cannot win and is mostly confused, angry, emotional and lives in a hyper-vigilant highly anxious state.
- Change of eating habits: either refuses to eat, or over eats.
- Nightmares and insomnia: the victim will most likely feel unsafe like going to sleep will expose them. It is also an indication of stress.
- Suicidal/suicide ideation: This really belongs in psychological signs, however you can at times have a child who says they want to kill themselves as a means to attract the attention they need. Generally speaking this is a huge cry for help, but this can also become a huge part of how a child behaves… in a way that they want to die. (I don’t believe that this is very common- this is more of a Psychological thing where a child would actually be considering ways to kill themselves)
- Imaginary friends: in children who have experienced significant trauma, a means of coping called disassociation can occur where a child can develop multiple personalities, or imaginary friends. You may see children chatting to themselves and not making a whole lot of sense. (This is obviously quite complex and is also a psychological sign, however still becomes quite a behavioural trait if occurring) (In later blogs I will explore coping strategies.)
- Overly compliant behaviour: (people pleasing) young people who have been abused and exposed to ongoing long and protracted grooming behaviours are often overly helpful and pleasing. Probably the most difficult thing to spot or get a sense that something was off… as we would always love having an overly pleasing child, but it is very needy type behaviour you are looking for. A little more intimate, clingy and desperate. Your intuitions will show you and you will sense something is off. This is to avoid conflict, to keep the peace, and protect their safety bubble.
- Drug and Alcohol use: not so much in the younger children but as a child gets older they may start to abuse substances in order to cope. This is also a mask for many traumas and undisclosed issues.
- Prostitution and unexplained money or gifts that your child may be in possession of: depending on the nature of the abuse and what is actually occurring a child may get ‘gifts’ for sexual acts or in exchange for doing a sexual act. It may also be a progression towards a sexual act in the form of grooming. For Example, the child may be asked to take off their clothes and have their picture taken- all they have to do is pose and they get $50. It may seem harmless enough to the child, but this image is then used to make child exploitation material as a naked adult can then be edited into the image and sold. This is why you should be very mindful about what images you post of your child on FB or instagram etc.… they can be copied, and edited and your child or family member then exploited. Furthermore, depending on their age and location in the world, for some young people they are prostitutes and like adults in prostitution, trade money for sex.
- Fear of adults- the same sex as the abuser: My mum noticed me recoil in fear one day as my Uncle was trying to help me into the car after I had been injured, I remember it clearly; however I didn’t know that anyone else had seen. Looking back now I know I was afraid of him and at times felt threatened by other men. I never knew then, as it was a very subconscious process. For a child experiencing abuse, this could be a complicated issue.
- Fantasy world focus: unable to stay focussed: (A little like adhd) Child may be extremely detached from the real world and often appear disengaged.
- Child does not want to go home: Child may indicate a preference to live elsewhere, and show obvious signs of trauma when required to go home.
- Concentration difficulties: Child may be harder to engage and possibly have issues staying on task.
- Poor relationships with peers: The child who is being abused already will be struggling with who they are and their purpose. Specifically, the child’s personality will undergo a makeover, after the initial sexual abuse encounter everything is turned upside down and they feel very much alone. This self isolation, poor self esteem and general inability to concentrate, lack of boundaries, makes life very hard for a young victim.
- Possible dressing as the opposite sex: There are a few thoughts around this – but it is a protective thing in the hope that it doesn’t happen anymore and victim may be less appealing to the abuser if they are the opposite sex. It may also be about appearing tougher, or smaller than they are as a statement of how they feel or to protect themselves. (bear in mind, that sexual abuse has very little to do with a persons disposition towards one sex or another)
- Lack of boundaries: Kids who have experienced trauma tend to also experience a lack of boundary control. This could be walking into the shower while someone else is in there, taking clothes off in public, inappropriate touching of strangers, unhealthy attachment to other adults and even those they don’t know and;
- Secretly hiding what they are doing online: Not openly sharing passwords, or information about who they are talking too. Be aware of any new names popping up who you don’t know and where it appears that details are being left out when your child talks about this person or is asked about this person. For more information on Internet and safe strategies online head to http://www.carlyryanfoundation.com.
The best way you can tell is making sure that you have an open and connected relationship with your child. Get to know what they do and don’t like, how they act and communicate. When they are not their ‘normal’ self, then you know something is not right. You are the closest person to your child.
Remember there is always help available. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask questions and report what has happened.
Take care and chat soon,
To see the definition of sexual abuse and what that looks like click HERE:
NEXT BLOG: Physical Signs of Sexual Abuse.
Every situation is different and each situation has its own very complex circumstances. There are no hard and fast answers, what I say here is my experience- and my own opinion supported at times by research.
This stuff is not black and white. It just can’t be. What is black and white/ right and wrong is that Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence is never ok, and it is never under any circumstances right.
What is grey is in fact terribly dark… That is the silence that sits surrounding this topic. The shame and absolute fear so heavily laden on the shoulders of victims that the mere thought of speaking brings crippling anxiety and fear.
Lets change that… together.
For further support you can click HERE:
If you are in immediate danger, please call 000 in Australia.
To report sexual abuse to police- please attend a Police Station or call 131444 for Policelink. (Australia)
To seek support or assistance you can contact me, www.kellyhumphries.com (I am a single entity who can offer advice, and personal coaching. I am not a psychologist or registered counsellor, but I am very approachable and happy to help.
You can contact the Centre for Sexual Violence at http://www.casv.org.au and download any of their brochures and information, and likewise Bravehearts– https://bravehearts.org.au/
For internet related advice please contact The Carly Ryan Foundation http://www.carlyryanfoundation.com
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