Child sexual abuse is more common than you might think, with one in every two children facing it here in India. And so, as a parent, it’s important to know how to deal with it if and when your own child falls prey to it. Since sexuality and consent are such taboo topics in Indian society, too often children who go through such tumultuous ordeals don’t feel encouraged to come forward, because they’re either too scared to, or they lack the language or understanding to talk about the abuse. A parent’s job, in such a case, is to not only ensure the child’s safety and comfort, but to also help the child deal with the trauma in an effective way.
The first and foremost thing a parent can do when a child comes forward is to believe them, rather than dismiss their concerns. When it comes to child sexual abuse, too often the predator can be someone you know, sometimes even a close family member; so the inclination is to disbelieve that someone you respect can end up being violent to your child. But to support or protect the predator only furthers rape culture, causing long-term damage to the child who has gone through such a horrific experience. Besides, it’s highly unlikely that a child would deliberately fabricate accounts of abuse (something they, at this point, don’t fully understand).
The parent should stand by the child, try to keep them away from their predators (especially if the said predator is a close family relative), try to give the child the physical and mental care they need, and try to take necessary action against the perpetrator.
If the child is on the younger side, their cognitive process might not be developed enough to truly register the details of the abuse they face. This, coupled with the general pressure to remain silent about such things, may cause certain inconsistencies in the child’s recollection of the event. A child's claim that sexual abuse did not happen (when it actually did), or taking back a disclosure of abuse are common. Sometimes the child's account of the event even changes or evolves over time, becoming clearer only when they grow older. But this is a common pattern, and should, in no way, invalidate the child’s experience of abuse.
Our brain has a tendency to suppress traumatic memories, which often hampers a sexual abuse survivor’s recollection of the traumatic event; and this is more pronounced in children. But such inconsistencies shouldn’t be taken lightly. The parents should encourage the child to recall the details in their own time, giving them the space to come to terms with the memories.
Very often, a child may have difficulty properly articulating their abuse. They may communicate it through gestures, half-formed phrases, or certain heightened emotions. In such cases, it’s the parent’s job to perceptive enough to understand what they’re trying to say, to help them through it, and to provide immediate urgent care. There are multiple non-profit organisations that work with child abuse, and can provide resources in these cases. Other than that, the law enforcement should also be involved as and when required.
It’s important to maintain your composure when your child is talking to you about their abuse. Avoid getting too angry or worked up (whether at the child or the perpetrator), because, due to the child’s fragile state, they might feel threatened by such an adverse reaction. If you get angry, they might think that you’re going to punish or hurt them too, which in turn, may cause them to withdraw entirely. Hence, parents must remember to remain calm and steady in such situations.
To get help from professionals who would help the child heal is of supreme essence. As parents, one might not be able to provide the kind of care a healthcare professional might, so to take your child to a trusted psychologist or physician with experience in treating the trauma of sexual abuse will benefit your child and encourage them to adopt healthy coping mechanisms.
Dealing with sexual abuse is not easy, both as the child and the parent. It takes a major emotional and mental toll, and there’s no singular cure for it. But what parents can do, is to be endlessly supportive, to understand the needs of the child and help them deal with it, and the first step to doing that is encouraging the child to speak up.