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Dangerous Beliefs

July 22, 2015

I recently read an article written by a child advocacy professional addressing sexual abuse prevention. This statement caused me to pause:

Most parents or guardians believe their child will tell them if they are being abused.

It seems like an understandable and rather obvious belief. As it turns out, however, this belief is a very wrong and very dangerous assumption.

I believe it is of critical importance to examine the gap between the expectations of parents and the reality that exists for the abused child. Experts estimate that only 38% of child victims disclose the fact that they have been sexually abused. And of these, 40% tell a close friend, rather than an adult or authority. According to my math, that means that approximately 15% of children will disclose their abuse to an adult and not necessarily their parent at that.

As long as I do this work, I will never become accustomed to hearing how it is that an abused child holds the secret of the abuse. It will always matter and it will always bring heaviness of heart. Time after time I hear the painful story of the first incident of victimization followed by the painstaking efforts this same child will go to in order to be sure no one knows of the abuse, hiding away any trace of evidence that would betray the secret of the horror this child has just experienced. I am deeply saddened to imagine how a traumatized child can manage to hold in such confusion and pain and I have come to know well the cost of such denial to the development of a healthy vibrant sense of self.

“Did you think about telling your parents?” In an interview acclaimed actor, writer and survivor, Martin Moran was asked about his experience after Bob, the youth worker from his church, abused him. His response provides a heartbreaking window into the mind and heart of an abused child.

You know, oddly or not oddly, I absolutely did not. Honestly, it was as though from that moment those events were like a fractured compartment of myself tucked down deep inside because I think I had an instant sense of being complicit – that I allowed it to happen. Any other good boy, any other good person, any other strong person would have said “Stop! Stop! What are you doing?” But I didn’t – I allowed it. And that made me feel deeply, from the second it happened, complicit, and that complicity sealed my silence.

Martin’s clear and insightful response is hard to take in.

It’s hard to hear and understand that not only does he keep silent about the abuse, thus negating any chance of support, comfort, or care in the wake of the abuse  he believes that it is his own weakness, his own failing that allowed the abuse to occur. And sadly, this is the common experience of the overwhelming majority of children whose internal and external realities become radically distorted at the moment of victimization.

For the child who believes that the abuse is his or her fault (which is most often what a child does believe), there is never a good time to speak of the dreadful shameful secret. This is just one of the reasons most survivors wait years or even decades to finally reach out for help

As difficult and painful as it might be, understanding the reality of the abused child’s experience is necessary to avoid resting in the comfortable yet dangerous assumption that a child will disclose sexual abuse to their parent, or to anyone else for that matter.

Knowing that a child is most likely to remain silent in the wake of sexual abuse can and should cause us to reconsider our notions in regard to prevention and intervention. Without any doubt, keeping kids safe from sexual abuse is an adult responsibility. It is adults who bear the responsibility to become aware and vigilant of the subtleties and the complexities that surround child sexual abuse. If we are depending on our misguided or misinformed beliefs, we will most certainly fail our children.

For more resources on how to keep kids safe, visit RPC's page on Keeping Kids Safe


Janice Palm, Executive Director

Knowing that a child is most likely to remain silent in the wake of sexual abuse can and should cause us to reconsider our notions in regard to prevention and intervention.

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