Mico Care Centre | A perspective on child sexual abuse - Perpetrators, victims,academic impact & recommendations
The following article was contributed by the Mico CARE Centre.
What do we know?
Recent attention has been given to a phenomenon that many pretend is all too rare, yet everyone knows is all too common. The sexual abuse of children has been a rampant evil in our society and we all know a story or two of those who have been subjected to this horror. Yet when a case comes to public light, as have the allegations against a few pastors recently, there is an outcry of revulsion, as if this were an aberration. This paradox of easy everyday tolerance of child sexual abuse with occasional bouts of public outrage for a few individuals does little to actually bring the issue to light as something needing to be addressed. It remains an unknown amorphous evil, perpetrated by evil men, but not something that we actually challenge vigorously. What we need to do is shine a light on how child sexual abuse happens and look at the facts in order to help our children and, in so doing, change our society.
Childhood sexual abuse happens in every community, in every part of the globe. It is more likely to happen for children living in chaotic households because of parental conflict or domestic violence. Studies around the world show an average rate of 12 per cent reporting being sexually abused as children - higher for girls (18 per cent) than boys (seven per cent). Counsellors, teachers, and parents report a much lower rate of sexual abuse incidents, which suggests that many of the children who experience abuse do not tell others. This is not surprising. We know that many children and adults who experience sexual assault never report due to guilt, shame and fear of not being believed. We need to create a space for our children to tell us when they are being hurt.
Who commits sexual assaults against children?
Most perpetrators are men - around 95 per cent. That means there are women that abuse children sexually but it is far more rare. Most target girls (70 per cent), some boys (20 per cent) and some both (10 per cent). Perpetrators target people close to them. Of course, there are incidents of rape and molestation by strangers. However, children usually experience abuse by people who are around them, who they trust - parents, step-parents, family members, neighbours, friends of the family, a mentor, a teacher, a coach. The closer the relationship, the more devastating the effects are on victims.
Perpetrators engage in what we term 'grooming' to access their victims. They build a relationship of trust, displaying overt friendliness, similar values, dependability and shared interests to seem as if they are on the same side as the family and as the victim. They present as people that we can trust with our children, and our children (initially) will like and respect them, want to spend time with them. They may give the child money or sweets or special trips to establish a fond relationship. Their goal is to be in a position where the child is more likely to go along and less likely to tell. Often, perpetrators will introduce more secretive activities such as telling dirty jokes, cursing, watching pornography to establish a taboo relationship, and encourage secretive guilty feelings. Abusers may then escalate to playful touching, wrestling or tickling to desensitise children to abusive acts. After abuse occurs, perpetrators may threaten children, and children blame themselves for what occurred.
MATTER OF CONSENT
Let us address consent. Children do not want, and cannot consent, to sexual relations with adults. They may be manipulated into inappropriate behaviours or a history of abuse may lead to early promiscuous behaviours. However, just as you cannot expect a 10-year-old to navigate the complexities of driving, neither can you reasonably expect a child to understand the complexities of sexual relationships. That is why consent laws exist - to protect children from becoming involved in situations that are outside of their capacity to cope. Statements that suggest that a child 'wanted it' are morally bankrupt. It can never be because a child was 'too developed' or 'force ripe'. Sexual abuse (or rape or stealing or murder) is an action that is thought of and initiated by the perpetrator and cannot be the fault of the victim.
What do we know about victims?
Childhood sexual abuse can be devastating to those who experience it. Close to half of childhood mental health problems are associated with sexual abuse, and a quarter of adults who have challenges have a history of childhood sexual abuse.
For victims, the betrayal of trust and violation of their physical boundaries can lead to an inability to trust others in the future or even trust themselves. Survivors are more likely to have dysfunctional relationships and more likely to engage in high-risk sexual activities. They are more likely to become sexually active earlier and have multiple partners. If you see a child acting 'fast', maybe he/she has been exposed too early to sexual content. Survivors have more difficulty forming intimate relationships, and are more susceptible to rape in the future.
Most of the challenges that survivors face come from the guilt and shame that they internalise. There is incredible doubt about their own abilities, high rates of depression and anxiety, and attempting to cope through addictive behaviours. They are more likely to have difficulty in school and have lower test scores. Survivors even report more physical health problems than people who have not experienced childhood sexual abuse. There are real harmful consequences for victims. These are consequences for us as a society.
The effects on academic and cognitive performance
There is often much discussed about the emotional and psychological effects of childhood maltreatment and particularly sexual abuse on children. However, it is important for us to not neglect to think about and explore what consumes much of children's lives - their academic and cognitive performance. Many studies have been done that highlight a relationship between cognitive impairment and childhood abuse or maltreatment. Studies have indicated that chronic abuse during a person's childhood can and does have a devastating effect on how the brain matures, and also on the organisation processes that take place. In fact, functional and structural changes have been noted to take place in the brain as the abused child matures through adolescence and into adulthood. More specifically, there has been evidence to show that children who are sexually abused show deficits in tasks that require short-term verbal memory, visual memory and other executive, higher-order brain functions such as emotional and self-control, planning and organisation skills, time-management skills, as well as the abilities to inhibit and shift attention as needed.
LIKELY TO END UP IN SPECIAL EDUCATION
Child maltreatment may also be associated with global cognitive deficits, including impaired intelligence, poor academic performance, and memory and learning disabilities. As a result, these children are more likely to end up in special education, compared to children who have no history of maltreatment.
According to researchers, children who are abused may end up with a number of emotional and behavioural problems, which result in them becoming very hypersensitive to threats and even perceived threats from adults. In turn, these children often 'act up' and become very hostile, and due to their disruptive behaviours, they are at high risk for being suspended and even expelled due to repeated offences. And so, one effect leads to another. Therefore, even for those children who are not having specific academic or learning problems, their achievement weakens simply due to lack of instruction arising from school absences. Hence, the emotional difficulties that these children face may impact their ability to concentrate and focus, as well as result in poor motivation.
It is important for us to understand the impact of sexual abuse on children as it presents in their academic performance. Many children go through various forms of maltreatment, in addition to sexual abuse, that may result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders, leaving these children so weak mentally and emotionally that they are not able to perform to their full potential and flunk school. It is also a discussion of what came first, the chicken or the egg, with some of these situations.
Many children who have biological and hereditary cognitive deficits, such as intellectual disabilities, are often the targets of perpetrators who take advantage of them and in turn abuse these children. As a result, many of these children who already had cognitive deficits may experience worsened situations as the emotional and psychological stress impairs any potential improvement they may be able to make.
What can we do?
We need to create a space where our children will talk to us. Too often, children are only hearing commands from adults - sit down, be quiet, take up your book. How much are we listening to our children daily? They will only feel free to communicate when something is wrong if they are already in the habit of sharing their thoughts freely. Sometimes children will drop a hint to see how it's taken before they fully disclose.
We need to believe our children. It can be hard to hear something painful or hard to hear that someone we trust is harming a child. But we cannot dismiss any accusation. Find out what's happening. Protect your child.
We need to empower our children to protect themselves. It is never too early to model and teach children that their bodies are their own and that they can choose who they want to hug, kiss, touch. Teach them that it is okay to say no and that adults must respect that.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim, seek professional help. Though there are many negative consequences that can occur from being violated if left untreated, there is great potential for overcoming the shame, anger, or apathy with help.
If it is observed that a child who has experienced sexual abuse is underachieving academically, then efforts should be made to have him/her assessed at the Mico Child Assessment Centre. Any recommendations for remedial intervention and/or special education should be implemented. Subsequently, the child's progress, or lack thereof, should be closely monitored by all stakeholders such as parents, teachers, guidance counsellors, coaches/extra-curricular instructors and church workers.
Your child can be helped. All is not lost.
- This article was researched by Shauna Miller, PhD, psychologist, Diagnostic and Therapeutic Services, and Kellie-Anne Brown Campbell, MEd, licensed associate school psychologist, Diagnostic and Therapeutic Services, Mico CARE Centre.