The conversation on enabling a child to disclose abuse and the appropriate responses to it, cannot be had without the context of overall parenting.

What to do if your child discloses sexual abuseImage for representation. By Marco Ceschi/Unsplash
Delve Child sexual abuse Tuesday, June 15, 2021 - 19:23

The child sexual abuse (CSA) allegations that have come out of prestigious Chennai schools in the last few weeks have led to several discussions – the accountability of schools, the pervasive nature of institutional abuse, the oppressive silence around it, to name a few. However, what has been missing in this discourse largely has been the role of parents. Sex, sexuality and sexual violence are taboo topics in most homes and this is ingrained in subtle as well as overt ways right from childhood – changing the channel when a kissing or sex scene comes on TV, talking in euphemisms to children about their genitals and reproduction, and so on.

In this context, it can be very difficult for a child, who has limited vocabulary, to explain abuse, even if they have mustered the courage to speak up. In many cases where children disclose sexual abuse, experts say that parents would rather brush it under the carpet or advise the child to circumvent the situation rather than address it. And sometimes, even the most well-intentioned parents may find themselves at a loss about how they should go about addressing it. 

We spoke to Vidya Reddy of Chennai-based Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, and Dr Shaibya Saldanha, co-founder of Enfold Trust, an NGO that works with children and adults to address gender and sexuality and also supports survivors of child sexual abuse.

The first response

Vidya says that the first step to preventing and addressing CSA is to accept the possibility of sexual violence happening to any child, anywhere, any time. “It happens insidiously, and in most cases, will not be by a stranger. Once you understand that, you will be better prepared.”

Both Vidya and Dr Shaibya say that as difficult as it is, parents should try to not have a breakdown in front of the child when they disclose abuse, and not get angry or upset. “No child wants to cause distress to their parents, especially when they know something is not quite right. It is a tall order, and a lot to ask of a parent at the time, but it is important,” Vidya says.

“Parents can instead say things like ‘thank you for telling me’ or ‘you are so brave to talk about this’ and then assure support and care for the child. Tell them that you are there for them. Don’t go into an interrogation mode at that time. Kids mostly just want to be believed and for the abuse to stop,” Dr Shabiya says, adding that not believing the child does the most harm.

“Don’t tell the child to forget about the abuse. Abuse is now a part of the child’s lived experience. Acknowledging it and leaving the channels of communication open is important. Take the cue from the child on how and when they want to talk about it, at their pace. Create a congenial environment where the child feels free to do so. Give reassurance and build confidence that you are there for the child no matter what,” Vidya adds.

This handbook by Kidscape, a British charity which works to prevent bullying and child sexual abuse, is a helpful reference for parents whose children have been sexually abused. It suggests that parents should also reassure the child that the abuse is not their fault, and only the offender is to blame for it. However, parents should avoid making judgmental statements about the abuser as the child may still like or love them. A majority of sexual abuse worldwide happens at the hands of individuals known to the child.

Listen, don’t just hear

It is also important for parents to understand that most children, who have limited vocabulary, may not be able to articulate sexual abuse. Even children who have been taught safe and unsafe touch could find it difficult because the process of grooming makes abuse harder to identify.

“For example — if a new kid joins school, and finds it hard to break into the already formed cliques, a teacher who has sexual interest in the child will show special attention to the lonely child, befriend them, keep them comfortable. This makes the child feel wanted. So, when the abuser starts ruffling their hair for example, the child feels special. It escalates from there,” Vidya had told TNM earlier.

Read: How to make schools safer for children: Interview with Tulir's Vidya Reddy

So, parents need to listen to the child, and look out for the visceral and somatic signs of sexual abuse. “Don’t just hear the child, really listen to them. You have to also pick up on the child’s feeling of discomfort – if they say stomach going ‘round and round’ or other bodily reactions to a person’s presence or after meeting them; if the child is reluctant to go to an uncle’s house; or gets a headache whenever the tuition teacher comes around…” Vidya says, pointing out some examples.  

Safety comes first

After the disclosure, the first action should be to ensure that the child is safe. “This is easier in cases of stranger or non-familial abuse. But it is harder in cases where the abuser is a known person. So, you could maybe start by telling the person to not come to the house anymore,” Dr Shaibya says. Whether to confront the abuser, warn others who have children and also know the abuser, are questions that the parents have to ask themselves and navigate on a case-to-case basis.

The conundrum of reporting

According to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, every instance of CSA should be mandatorily reported. However, experts have often pointed out that this is a problematic aspect of the law, as the criminal justice system is not child or victim-enabling, long-winded, re-traumatising and exhausting. Further, the provision also prevents survivors from accessing medical and mental healthcare because doctors and mental health professionals are mandated by law to report CSA and survivors may not want that.

However, experts say that in cases of institutional CSA such as the allegations coming out of Chennai schools, mandatory reporting should continue. While parents should ideally inform the school if their child has disclosed sexual abuse in schools, it can also put them in a difficult situation, as schools are mandated to report this to the police. However, what parents can do is seek out organisations and NGOs that will help them prepare, and handhold them and the child through the process.

Even if the abuse is not institutional, Dr Shaibya suggests, “Parents can always look for NGOs and organisations and ask for their advice instead of immediately reporting. Don’t just take family members’ advice.”

The POCSO Act does not place a time limit on when an offence under the law should be reported. However, the law does not apply retrospectively, i.e. if the offence happened before November 14, 2012, when the Act came into effect, it would have to charged under the Indian Penal Code.  

Further, Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) should also hold schools accountable – ensure that schools have a child protection policy and demand that the names of the committee members be easily available and in different languages.

Read: POCSO says child sexual abuse be mandatorily reported: Why it’s a double-edged sword

A shift in approach to parenting  

The conversation on enabling disclosure and appropriate responses to it cannot be had without the context of overall parenting.

Dr Shaibya explains that a child is unlikely to disclose sexual abuse if you have set a precedent of scolding or punishing the child for an action that happened by mistake. “If a child has accidentally broken a glass and the parents scold them, the child will learn to be scared of them. If a child has failed an exam, they will be scared of telling their parents due to fear of punishment. So, when the child feels something wrong has happened, how will they feel free to come and talk to the parent? It has to be a continuum of building trust and reassurance.”

For parents wondering how they can teach children right from wrong without punishment, Dr Shaibya says that you can teach them accountability. Giving an example, she explains a case where a child accidentally pushed a brick off a building which fell down, damaging the car of a neighbour. The scared child told his mother, who acknowledged what had happened and took the child with her to the neighbour where she discussed what had happened, apologised, and said that she would pay for the repair.

“Bad things happen, and you need to own up to them, not run. You don’t need to teach discipline – children will learn by seeing their parents and adults around them. Haven’t you noticed how you are becoming more and more like your mother?” she points out with a chuckle. “You don’t have to become a parent who gives the child noodles and cake every time they ask, but you need to become someone your child can speak to. It won’t happen overnight, it is something that has to be built from the beginning.”

“You can’t have a ‘my way or the highway’ approach and then expect the child to open up to you and talk about something like this,” Vidya adds. “Parents need to be non-judgmental and focus on what helps in bringing a young person grow into a humane adult rather than making their kids toe the lines drawn by them.”

Read: How to talk to your child about sexual abuse: A guide for parents

Getting help for oneself

It is also incredibly hard for a parent to come to terms with the fact that their child has been sexually abused. Dr Shaibya and Vidya say that for this reason, parents themselves should seek help. “Parents should go for counselling when such a thing happens, because they themselves feel shattered,” Dr Shaibya says.

“Until parents are in a good place, how will they be there for the child? Parents must also acknowledge the emotional tumult they are going through and seek help for themselves. Sometimes just talking to a friend or family member with whom you feel heard and safe is helpful,” Vidya says.

Further, parents should understand that they can’t protect their children from all things bad, including CSA. “People can go through something like this, survive and even thrive – if they have good self-esteem, which is given largely by parents,” says Dr Shaibya. 

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