Sexual abuse can be physical, verbal or emotional and involves tricking, bribing, forcing, pressurising or threatening a child or teenager into sexual awareness or activity. Sexual abuse involves the use of a child or teenager by an older or more knowledgeable person for their own sexual pleasure. It often begins gradually and increases insidiously over time.
Sexual abuse has been exposed as a worldwide problem that has a potentially devastating impact on a person, both as a child and in adult life. In Ireland, the subject has, after decades of secrecy, been constantly in the news in the last number of years, with documentaries such as RTE’s ‘States of Fear’ throwing light on a hidden Ireland of widespread physical and sexual abuse of children and adolescents.
This publicity has in turn encouraged many adults whose lives had been blighted by early experiences of abuse to come forward as witnesses against their adult abusers. In many cases this has enabled survivors of abuse to begin the long-overdue process of counselling and psychotherapy to assist them in coming to terms with past traumas.
The prevalence of sexual abuse of children is very difficult to quantify, with estimates varying widely from 6% to 60% of women and 3% to 30% of men reporting abuse as a child.
Determining the extent of the problem is hampered by the secrecy with which both victims and perpetrators surround the subject, and the difficulty defining what is sexual abuse – what is an easily forgotten incident to one child may be deeply disturbing to another.
An estimate that is often quoted is that one in 10 children have been sexually abused, with girls more frequently than boys. If all forms of inappropriate touching, language or contact of a sexual nature are included, estimates rise to one in four. A recent study from Switzerland quotes a prevalence rate of sexual abuse with penetrative sex at 6% for girls and 1% for boys in a school population age 13-17 years.
Almost all sexual abuse is by a blood relative or family role person. Sexual abuse by a stranger, while well publicised, is rare. Sexual abuse tends to end in the early teens with the onset of puberty although the psychological consequences can persist for a lifetime.
In adolescents, psychological effects of abuse are prevalent, with moodiness, truancy and depression often featuring. Sexual abuse is most damaging when it is repeated, perpetrated by family members and/or involves physical contact backed by force or threats of violence. However, a more banal form of abuse involving exhibitionism can be very shocking to young adolescents.
Abuse of teenagers can also be in the form of physical or emotional neglect or parental incompetence. A salutary reminder is the number of children who are in care at any one time, some of whom will have been taken into care because of abuse at home.
In 1991, there were 1,245 children in care in Ireland. Of the total number of children in care 31% were there due to parents being unable to cope, 20% due to neglect, 11% due to parental illness, 9.6 % due to the child being abandoned, 7.8% due to physical abuse and 5.1 % as a result of sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse is often well hidden but the teenager may display certain unusual signs, which should be cause for concern. These include:
- Withdrawal from family, friends or usual activities.
- Hostility or aggression.
- Fear of certain people or places.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Low self-esteem.
- Problems at school.
- Displays of childish behaviour.
- Discipline problems.
- Running away from home.
- Eating disorders.
- Drug or alcohol addictions.
- Self-destructive behaviour.
- Sexual activity or pregnancy at a young age.
- Suicide or parasuicide.
- Excessive bathing or poor hygiene.
You may feel a variety of emotions as a result of the abuse you have experienced. Shame, guilt and fear (sometimes justified) that it will break up your family may prevent you from talking what you have experienced. The person who has abused you may have threatened or bribed you to keep the abuse a secret and you may be afraid that no one will believe you. You may also blame yourself and feel too ashamed or embarrassed to tell.
Anger at your abuser and sadness that you have been betrayed by someone that you trusted are not unusual. You may also feel guilty for telling or for keeping the secret and ashamed as a result of your experience. Fear of your abuser and of causing trouble may also make you feel uncomfortable about telling. However, silence enables the sexual abuse to continue.
You may be terrified if you are asked directly about the abuse, yet it will probably be a huge relief that someone has acknowledged the problem and the abuse has finally come out in the open.
It is important to talk to someone you trust who can help you to get help, however. This might be an adult such as one of your parents, your GP or a schoolteacher that you know and trust. Whoever you talk to, it is vital that you do seek help as soon as possible. If the abuse is still occurring, this may be the first opportunity to have it stopped.
If your teenager tells you they have been abused, believe them. It is probably the most difficult thing they will ever have to tell you or you will ever have to hear, particularly if it involves a family member. Too many children have summoned up the immense courage required to tell and have been met with a blank denial. It is a sad fact that many adult survivors of sexual abuse report trying to tell at least one family member and then not being believed.
Consider why your teenager would make up such a story. What have they got to gain? Teenagers are often well aware of the consequences of telling and may not want to lose the love of the parent/carer they are accusing and thus, while they want it to stop, they may have ambivalent feelings about telling. As a parent you may feel helpless but you can help in several ways:
- It is important to keep calm and to ensure that your teenager does not feel that you are angry with them.
- Explain to them that they are not at fault.
- Listen to their questions and try to answer them honestly.
- Respect their privacy.
- Call a helpline and get more advice and support.
- Most importantly it is vital to seek professional help immediately if you believe your child has been abused. Your GP will be able to refer you to the appropriate services. As a parent, you will probably need as much support and counselling as your child.
Helping the adolescent come to terms with shame and guilt are important, as this forms the basis of their recovery from the psychological sequelae. Guilt is to be expected but is inappropriate. As the victims of adult misbehaviour, they have nothing to blame themselves for. It may be important to allow the adolescent vent anger at the perpetrator.
For teenagers, as with most issues of a personal nature, it is usually better to take a direct, unembarrassed approach to the subject. It is useful to include a question about abuse if your child has signs of changes in behaviour or mood.
When asking, do so directly, perhaps not using the words sexual abuse but rather language that is unambiguous, eg:
- Have you ever been intimately spoken to or touched by someone in a way you didn’t like or felt shouldn’t happen?
- Is it still happening?
- Do you know this person?
- Would you like to tell me about it?
- At all times stress confidentiality and that you will believe them.
Seek professional help if your teenager has been sexually abused or if you feel that you are unable to talk to them about it. Above all, never ignore the problem. It’s far too serious.