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Articles from Magazines & Journals

Child Abuse, Sexual and Emotional
What sexual abuse is and how it may affect children

Child Sexual Abuse
The behavior of sexually abused children

Responding to Child Sexual Abuse
What to say and do if a child confides in you about being abused

Mapping your stages of healing from childhood abuse
For survivors - the stages of healing

Incest: the hurt ... the shame ... the healing
A personal story from a survivor of incest

  "Child Abuse, Sexual and Emotional"
Source : "Child Abuse, Sexual and Emotional." Doreen Arcus, Ph.D. University of Massachusetts Lowell. The Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence. Jerome Kagan, Executive Editor; Susan B. Gall, Managing Editor. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1998

Children are said to be sexually abused when they experience sexual contact with an adult or older child through coercion or deceptive manipulation at an age and stage of development at which they do not possess sufficient maturity to understand the nature of the acts and therefore to provide informed consent. Often physical force is not necessary since the perpetrator is likely to be someone with whom the child has a trusting relationship and who is in a position of authority over the child.

The type of sexual contact may involve intercourse, touching or fondling the genitals or secondary sex organs with hands, mouth, or objects, or being forced to perform sexual acts with another person. Contact may not involve any actual touching. Children can be coerced into disrobing and exposing themselves, or watching adults disrobe or engage in sexual activity. In some cases, children can be involved in ritualistic sexual abuse as part of cult or other belief-driven practice.

Perpetrators go to great lengths to conceal sexual abuse. Children who have been sexually abused may not report the behavior due to threats or to a lack of understanding of what has happened. In addition, they may be confused by the simultaneous physical arousal they may feel and the clearly covert, possibly threatening nature of the event. Evidence of abuse may show in physical symptoms, such as rashes or injuries to the genital area and blood or discharge in bedding or underwear; advanced sexual knowledge for the child's age; provocative or seductive behavior toward others; bedwetting after the child has established the ability to stay dry through the night; declining peer relationships; fear of a person, place, or object associated with the abuse; or changes in school behavior or performance. In addition, older children or adolescents may begin to act out or to withdraw, use drugs or alcohol, or begin to harm themselves or become preoccupied with thoughts of death.

  "Child Sexual Abuse"
Source: Child Sexual Abuse.
Clinical Reference Systems. Annual 2000 p300.

The behavior of sexually abused children may include:
   unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature
   sleep problems or nightmares
   depression or withdrawal from friends or family
   statements that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or fear that there is something wrong with them in the genital area
   refusal to go to school
   delinquency or conduct problems
   aspects of sexual molestation in drawings, games, fantasies
   unusual aggressiveness
   suicidal behavior

  "Responding to Child Sexual Abuse"
Source: Clinical Reference Systems. Annual 2000 p1334.

When a child tells an adult that he or she has been sexually abused, the adult may feel uncomfortable and may not know what to say or do. The following guidelines should be used when responding to children who say they have been sexually abused:

What to Say
   If a child even hints in a vague way that sexual abuse has occurred, encourage him or her to talk freely. Don't make judgmental comments.
   Show that you understand and take seriously what the child is saying. Child and adolescent psychiatrists have found that children who are listened to and understood do much better than those who are not. Your response to the disclosure of sexual abuse is critical to the child's ability to resolve and heal the trauma of sexual abuse.
   Assure the child that he or she did the right thing in telling about the abuse. A child who is close to the abuser may feel guilty about revealing the secret. The child may feel frightened if the abuser has threatened to harm the child or other family members as punishment for telling the secret.
   Tell the child that he or she is not to blame for the sexual abuse. Most children in attempting to make sense out of the abuse will believe that somehow they caused it or may even view it as a form of punishment for imagined or real wrongdoing.
   Finally, offer the child protection, and promise that you will promptly take steps to see that the abuse stops.

What to Do
Report any suspicion of child abuse. If the abuse is within the family, report it to the local child protection agency. If the abuse is outside the family, report it to the police or district attorney's office. Individuals reporting in good faith are immune from prosecution. The agency receiving the report will conduct an evaluation and will take action to protect the child.
Parents should consult with their child's physician, who may refer them to a health care provider who specializes in evaluating and treating sexual abuse. The examining doctor will evaluate the child's condition and treat any physical problem related to the abuse, gather evidence to help protect the child, and reassure the child that he or she is all right.

Usually the child should also have a psychiatric evaluation to find out how the sexual abuse has affected him or her. It can be determined whether ongoing professional help is necessary for the child to deal with the trauma of the abuse. A child and adolescent psychiatrist or other expert can also provide support to other family members who may be upset by the abuse.
While most allegations of sexual abuse made by children are true, some false accusations may arise in custody disputes and in other situations. Occasionally the court will ask a child and adolescent psychiatrist to help determine whether the child is telling the truth or whether it will hurt the child to speak in court about the abuse. When a child is asked to testify, special considerations, such as videotaping, frequent breaks, exclusion of spectators, and the option not to look at the accused, make the experience much less stressful.

Adults, because of their maturity and knowledge, are always the ones to blame when they abuse children. The abused children should never be blamed.

When a child tells someone about sexual abuse, a supportive, caring response is the first step in getting help for the child and reestablishing trust in adults.
  "Mapping your stages of healing from childhood abuse"
Source:  Behavioral Health Treatment. Nov 1997 v2 n11

As a survivor of child sexual or physical abuse, you probably have learned many "skills" simply in order to survive. Many survivors learn to stifle their feelings for fear that they will be harmed if they upset someone or express their needs. You may even have forgotten the abuse incidents to protect yourself from the trauma. Some survivors also have problems with body image -- either never feeling happy with their bodies or wishing their bodies would not attract any attention -- and many have difficulties in sexual relationships.

As a child, you learned all of these behaviors to protect yourself as much as possible. Now that you have embarked on the recovery process, you can relearn how to have healthy relationships with yourself and others. The following stages represent something of a road map to recovery. They often are simultaneous and overlapping, though they generally will tend to flow in this order.

Breaking the denial

In attempts to protect themselves from the emotional trauma of abuse, many survivors (unconsciously or consciously) forget or deny the abuse. But before you can continue with the healing process, you must acknowledge the need to heal. The healing is in the telling and acceptance of the story in a supportive and caring context. Through the retelling of your story, you most likely will feel considerable pain, sorrow and grief. You may, for the first time, full realize the extent and horror of the abuse.

During this stage, survivors begin to defy the major rule in any abusive family: "There is nothing wrong. We do not need help. Keep this in the family." If your family has not acknowledged the abuse, you may feel yourself drawn back into familiar patterns of denial. It may take some time before you can withstand intense or prolonged contact with your family without acquiescing to old family patterns.

Moving beyond guilt and self-blame

You already may find yourself asking: "Why me? Why did this happen to me?" To explain why they were abused, victims often blame themselves, convincing themselves they were not good sons or daughters, good students, etc. During this stage, survivors grapple with this self-blame. To continue with recovery, you need some basic level that no one deserves that kind of treatment. You were abused not because of who you are (or were), but because of who your abuser is. The abuse was out of your control and not your fault.

Learning to live with feelings

Victims of abuse often block their feelings for fear that they will express them and cause something bad to happen (like more abuse, abandonment, etc.). Survivors learn to associate any peak experience with something out of control and dangerous.

Just because you have denied or stifled your feelings does not mean that they no longer exist. They still churn under the surface, expressing themselves in surprising ways, such as a fear of intimacy, for example. To know yourself well, and to have a caring relationship with someone else, you will need to acknowledge, feel and express those hidden emotions.

Learning to love your body

Others used your body as a battleground in the past. Consequently, you may feel very negatively about your body, believing it to be too fat or too thin, and maybe even wishing it did not exist or did not attract any attention. Some survivors feel like they do not belong in their bodies, or that their bodies do not really belong to them.

In this stage, perhaps for the first time, you will begin to learn to listen to your body -- to eat when you are hungry; to stop when you are full: to exercise when you feel lethargic: to stop when you tire. Instead of seeing sex as an intimate and, yes, fun way of expressing love, many survivors find it scary, revolting or even painful. This is because as children, particularly in the cases of incest and sexual abuse, sexuality became something painful and terrifying. By confronting your abuse and your feelings, you can begin to develop healthy, satisfying sexual relationships.

Building interpersonal skills

Many survivors remain detached in their relationships, fearing the emotional openness necessary for intimacy or certain that "everything I love just goes away anyway." In recovery, you will learn to trust others and to share your feelings. You may need to relearn communication skills, such as how to express your anger in a productive way. These skills are necessary for developing healthy relationships.

Managing stress, solving problems

In your family, you may have learned to put yourself and your own needs last. You probably were told, either subtly or directly, that it is not OK to please yourself because you are bad and the only way you ever can hope to be good is to take care of others before yourself. Besides sheer survival techniques, you never learned how to take care of yourself. Thus, you never learned how to solve any problems; instead you learned to try to avoid anything that might cause a problem.

As you become more in touch with your feelings, you also will need to learn problem-solving skills and how to manage your stress. Support groups may help you through this stage. Other members can offer their advice and encourage you in your healing.

Resolving spiritual themes and issues

Depending on your spiritual or religious background, you may need to re-evaluate your definitions of good and evil. Just as you questioned, "Why me?", you may wonder how God, divine providence, etc., allowed your abuse to happen. Did your image of God support you during the abuse, enabling you to survive? Most people who experience a trauma ask themselves these questions. You may even find yourself thinking of God or spirituality in a completely different way.

"Putting it all behind you" stage

In this stage, you finally have integrated your memories, emotions and current experiences. You now can evaluate your recovery process and focus on your present and future relationships.

Recovery is a painful process, but survivors often feel a great sense of relief and freedom in the end. As with recovery from any trauma, do not try to do this alone. Seek help from a counselor, support group or a book (see the suggested reading list). Remember, you have survived the abuse, which means you are strong enough to tackle anything, even the remaining emotional trauma.

  "Incest: the hurt... the shame... the healing"
Source:  Victoria Candace Stephan. Vibrant Life. Nov-Dec 1992 v8 n6 p18(4).

I am a survivor of incest. A minister, my father molested me before I could speak. He did not inflict physical pain when he violated me. We had a close relationship, and secrets from Mommy. I adored him. My father introduced me to the excitement of the forbidden. He died when I was only 5, and I felt abandoned.

All my life I have asked why. I have struggled to know who I am, what place in the world I might occupy, what contribution I might make.

Perhaps the illness that ended my father's life caused him to violate me. Perhaps what occurred during his childhood--he and his siblings suffered physical beatings, verbal tongue lashings, emotional deprivation, mental abuse and, likely, sexual violation --compelled him to act out on me some of what had been acted out on him.

During the last year of his life my mother sent me to live with her relatives, since she had all she could do to cope with the traumas of my father's illness. During that time away from home a male cousin sexually abused me. And when I was 12, the older brother of my best friend repeatedly violated my sexual boundaries. Because I enjoyed what he did, I felt guilty and ashamed. I have never been able to forget those encounters, although I had long forgotten, until recently, what both my father and cousin had done.

My first marriage failed. I experienced years of sexual promiscuity and chaos--before, during, and after that marriage. I felt increasingly ashamed and self-destructive and indulged in many forms of addiction to escape being and feeling myself.

Eventually I became involved with a married minister, .which nearly undid my budding spirituality. I spent years expecting God to abuse and abandon me just as my father had done, and just as this minister had done when the affair came to light.

Surviving. My second marriage has brought healing into my life. But I nearly destroyed this marriage before the deep, dark part of my heart began to heal. I expected my husband to abuse and abandon me, even though he is an exceptionally loyal person. I expected from him what I had so often received in the past. For I was a victim. I was a victim of incest. I did not yet know I was also a survivor-- strong, rough, resilient.

Victims of incest do survive. We survive because we are not alone. Others share our experience, even if they have not yet come to realize it. Some of us, like myself, are fortunate enough to have family members and friends who believe us. We also have the Lord God, who has helped us survive thus far.

It has been hard for me to face the truth, but only the truth frees. In my journal I have written about blame--of others, myself, and God--about abuse, guilt, anger, control, pain, and depression. But not just dark, heavy expressions are there. The journal reveals threads of positive emotions I've experienced by bringing the darkness to Christ; bright, beautiful threads of joy as I learn not to blame myself or anyone, and live in a place of love and forgiveness.

But love--for my husband, mother, other relatives, and friends--doesn't come easily for survivors of incest. I am able to love only as I let go of the fear and forgive. I can believe the love of others for me only as I learn to love myself. As God feeds my mind with great thoughts of fearlessness and love, the healing process continues.

As I entered into the process of healing by remembering, I felt pain and rage for the damage done to me the child, the adolescent, the young adult, the woman moving into middle age. I have grieved for myself and for the family system that allowed such abuse. As I have faced the shame and have gone through and past the blame, I have frequently marveled that I survived at all.

In the beginning I wanted to remember everything right away, become healed and go on with my life. I wish it were a quick process. But an incest survivor--the survivor of any abuse that undermines the dignity of personhood--does not recover quickly.

In the healing process, as in every other purpose under heaven, there is a time for remembering and a time to put aside memory for later. For me, the process has been like an upward ascending spiral: I go repeatedly down into the pain and ascend to the heights of having healed that bit of what I have remembered.

Perhaps I have done as well as I have because of friends, some of them therapists, who, as good friends will, point out where I have need and then do what they can to fill it.

My father died on Memorial Day in 1950. Again on Memorial Day, 42 years later, I remember the pain, the loss, the guilt, the shame, the sorrow, the anger. Just as we carry physical scars from accidents or abuse, so also our spirits carry sears. The scar tissue will never go away. But the gaping wound is closing. My father now stands in the light of truth and forgiveness, so I also remember the love.

Author's note: I wish to remain anonymous because the length of this article does not allow for a full picture of the positive influence of my father's ministry to balance my negative personal experience with him.