When a Child Has Been Sexually Abused
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Necessary steps when facing your worst nightmare
As a Solo Mom, you work hard to create a safe environment for your children. You communicate with them and listen to their deepest fears. You teach them to walk with their heads held high. In their carefree laughter, you celebrate and revel. You feel confident. You feel strong.
And yet, one day, this world comes crashing down. You walk into your home and see the lines of anguish on your child’s face. You smell fear and shame. You can see that somehow your child is no longer yours, and she has turned into a stranger. She withdraws into a shell and her silence stuns and torments you. And you know that this is the beginning of a nightmare.*
Sexual abuse is ugly and horrifying. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Every eight minutes, that victim is a child, and only six out of every 1,000 violators end up in prison for their crime.
But after a nightmare such as this happens, what do you do?
You ask questions. You listen. You become more observant than usual. And you initiate the healing process. Here’s how:
Asking questions and identifying behaviors
- Does your child stay away from certain people? From certain family members and friends?
- Is she reluctant to socialize? Does this reluctance border on phobia?
- Does your child express aversion to taking baths? Or is she obsessive about taking showers?
- Is she edgy? Does she have difficulty falling asleep? Does she startle easily?
- Of late, have you noticed a drop in her grades?
- Has she returned to regressive behavior such as thumb-sucking, which she had stopped long ago?
- Have there been episodes of bed-wetting?
- Does she shrink away from hugs and other physical contact?
- Have there been instances of self-harm lately?
- Does your child show sexual behavior that is inappropriate for her age?
- Does she talk in a language that sounds too sexual for her age?
- Has she been complaining of soreness in her private parts?
- Has there been an unusual vaginal discharge?
Sexual abuse and the Solo Mom
The effects of sexual abuse are manifold and can be even more so when you are parenting solo. You begin questioning the choices you have made. Your solo-ness seems unsafe. Threatened. You begin hearing these concerns in your head:
- I am not capable of protecting my own child.
- The assault is my fault. I should not have trusted that friend/colleague/relative.
- Is this real? Has the assault really happened?
- I feel helpless and scared. I cannot trust my instincts any longer.
But before you let the guilt consume you, remember that the sexual assault did not happen because you chose to go solo. You did not invite the abuse. You did not foresee any of this.
And, most important of all, now is the time your child needs you most. Because even though she might deny it and not say it aloud, she believes in you. In the fierceness of your spirit, she seeks courage and guidance toward healing, bit by bit . . . day by day.
Dealing with your child’s feelings
Your child is hurt, angry, and confused. If the perpetrator was someone whom the child implicitly trusted, she might even be angry with you for disrupting her “social life.”
You might feel that you are talking to a wall, and she might start confiding in people whom you do not trust or talk about the episode obsessively.
Whatever it is she starts to do, remember that she does all this out of a sense of loss. She is hurt and traumatized, and in some unconscious way, she blames herself. Now is the time to tell her the following:
- You are not worthless.
- You are not damaged goods.
- You are not responsible for the abuse even if it felt good.
- You are not making this up or imagining this.
- You are not upsetting me by revealing all this.
- I love you, and I will do everything to keep you safe.
Reporting the crime
- Call 911 if you believe your child is in danger.
- If you need to talk to someone from your local sexual assault service provider, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
- If you need to talk with a trained volunteer to help you with the process of reporting the crime, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (4454) any time.
- Know more about mandatory reporting laws in your state by visiting RAINN’s State Law Database.
Healing is not a one-stop journey—neither for the survivor nor the Solo Mom. It is a continuous work in progress. For it to begin, you need to bring back gentleness into your life and say yes to positivism, safety, planning, therapy, and self-care.
You need to tell yourself and your child every single day that by making a choice to battle the abuse, both of you have made a beginning, that you have embarked on the road to freedom and will continue to acknowledge the presence of fear, but you will not let it torment or cripple you. You will continue to listen to the voice of clarity—the one that rationalizes and heals, the one that tells you that because you survived, you will soar above the darkness into swirling rays of freedom.
*Although this article describes the survivor of child sexual abuse in terms of female gender, it is important to understand that child sexual abuse is not gender specific. Sexual abuse is as common among boys as it is among girls. Colorado State University’s Women and Gender Advocacy Center report that one in six boys are abused before the age of 16, and the average age for the first incident of abuse is eight years and four months old.
Below are some helpful resources for Solo Moms to help their children heal from sexual abuse:
- For the parents of children who survived sexual abuse: Help for Parents of Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused by Family Members
- Resources for recovering from sexual violence for survivors and their loved ones: Recovering from Sexual Violence
- Resources for staying safe and protecting others: Safety and Prevention
- Resources for boys and men experiencing sexual abuse: Boys and men healing from male child sexual abuse
- Books for the survivors of child sexual abuse:
At ESME, we have a confidential section for Solo Moms in Sisters Only where they can discuss and support one another regarding issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. There is no reason to go through this alone.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.