Why Kids Don't Tell
April 12, 2016
By definition, all children are vulnerable and dependent on adults to keep them safe. When it comes to the dangers of a child being sexually abused by an adult or an older child, this is a responsibility we dare not ignore. Prevention programs that focus on actions a child can take to protect him/herself from being abused may be helpful, but are no match for the clever manipulation of an adult perpetrator. It is unrealistic to believe that a child can fend off the sexual advances of an adult or an older child.
According to a recent survey, most parents or guardians believe that a child will tell them if they are being sexually abused. We know from experience that this is a dangerous belief. Research tells us that only 38% of children who are abused tell someone. Holding an expectation that a child will take responsibility for keeping him/herself safe or that this child will tell of the abuse leaves children at grave risk.
It may be difficult to understand why a child wouldn’t just say no, run away, or speak up in response to being sexually abused.
- Children are taught to obey adults
Children implicitly trust adults. From earliest memory, adults care for, guide, and protect children. As children grow the make generalizations to make sense of the world. From earliest memory children are taught to obey parents, grandparents, day care teachers, etc. It isn’t difficult to understand that in a child’s mind, all adults are trustworthy. It is worth noting that to a young child, an older child or teen seems like an adult.
- Perpetrators don’t look like scary strangers
In fact, perpetrators look like adults that children know and trust—because they are! 90% of abusers are known to the children they abuse and approximately 60% of children who are abused are abused by individuals the family knows and trusts. Abusers often take the time to form a trusting relationship with the child or the family thus ensuring easy access to the child. The warning signals that might alert a child (or parent) to danger never go off.
This is also a primary reason that children don’t report. When the abuser is someone known to the child or the family, an abused child fears he/she won’t be believed for fear of disturbing relationships.
- Sexual abuse is often not violent or harsh
Sexual abuse often begins gradually and subtly or even as a game. Children are often groomed to accept the nuanced advances of an abuser, never realizing they are being controlled and manipulated by the abuser. By the time a child begins to feel violated, the child may have come to believe that they are complicit in the sexual relationship.
It is impossible to over emphasize the role that shame plays in an abused child’s experience. I have yet to meet a survivor who didn’t stagger under the weight of shame. Children who are sexually abused translate the bad feelings of sexual violation to themselves, believing that they are the cause of these complicated, scary, and shameful feelings. Children who believe they have done something dreadfully wrong shrink back, hoping to hide in the shadows for fear of their shame being found out.
- The effects of trauma
It may be difficult to imagine the quiet workings of abuse as traumatic. Yet the experience of a child who is outmaneuvered and overpowered by an adult’s sexual desire is nothing short of trauma. We know well the brain’s protective and automatic fight, flight, or freeze response to trauma. The act of sexual violation most often only allows the option of freeze to the terrorized child. Not only is a child unable to take action to protect him or herself, but a traumatized brain shuts off the avenues to process information and in many cases, even recall some or all of the abuse.
If there is a lesson to emerge from this difficult reality, it is a reminder of the absolutely critical need for adults to be aware of the vulnerability of all children and to take action to protect them. The reflexive need to turn away from the horrible actuality of an adult sexually abusing a child appears to be all too common. We know the certain outcome of this egregious failure; children are left to silently bear continued abuse and a lifetime of nearly unbearable struggle and abusers remain at large, free to continue to perpetrate. It is the job of all adults to unequivocally put the needs of each and every child before their own, to be alert to the opportunity and the signs of abuse, and most of all to listen and believe a child who asks for help.
Prevention programs that focus on actions a child can take to protect him/herself from being abused may be helpful, but are no match for the clever manipulation of an adult perpetrator.