Signs of child sexual abuse/incest - yes, even in "good" families
In response to an earlier journal entry on Incest - the invisible violence... Jackie wrote to me this question, which I believe is a wonderful one, and prompted a very long answer. In case it is of interest to others, I am sharing... thank you. :)
You open our eyes, towards understanding how we should be open to listen to our girls at home, at schools, at churches, everywhere, and we should not let their voices remain unheard.
I have a question for you, I hope you won´t mind answering, but if you don´t it will be ok too, as I understand how difficult it is to talk about these issues: What are the signs we should be aware of in a girl who is being abused? What is, in your experience, the one thing that should trigger our red alarm for taking action?
Thank you again my dear. I hope you will be coming to World Pulse as often as possible. Feel free to share.We see you.
On April 6, 2010, SpiraSpera wrote:
Jackie - I don't mind at all, in fact it's a wonderful question. I'm not sure there would be one thing to look for... there are really several. Changes occuring in children and adolescents happen all the time, so I'm sure its difficult to know what could be a sign of something else and what is normal development. From my own experience, I can only offer that the abuse that occured with me happened when I was 10 years old (or at least that is my first memory). I believe the median age for children who are abused is 9 years old. But it can happen to toddlers and it can happen to teenagers. Always be in tune with children you care about to "see below the surface" - to let them know they can tell you ANYTHING that's on their mind. Watch for signs of worrying. Often children who are abused sexually have been violated by someone they know and trust, often a family member. They carry the shame of the abuse and feel that they must protect their parents and other family members from it (in some cases, the perprator is one of the parents, typically the father). Usually, the victim is the oldest daughter or only daughter in a family when one or both parents are emotionally absent. Older brother/younger sister incest usually happens when the brother is 5 or more years older than the sister. This was the case with me. I was 10 and my brother was 16. But I believe boys are abused just as often as girls, so be aware of this too.
Something important to know - because sexual abuse in children often is perpetrated by a family member or trusted adult, children rarely tell what has happened. It is very confusing for the child. Initially, the child may feel that they are getting special attention from the adult and cling to the adult or at least, be affectionate toward them. Watch for excessive attention from adults or older children onto younger children. And do not listen to people who say "oh, the child asked for it". Children are incapable of comprehending anything sexual. It is the responsibility of the adult to provide an environment of safety. If this boundary is broken, accountability must be upheld on the part of the adult. Blaming the child only covers up the truth. At some point, I believe many victims of abuse realize on some level what has happened to them and they may start showing signs of not wanting to be around that adult or older child. Don't force them to. Don't force children to "hug uncle so-and-so"... there may be a reason they don't want to.
As for signs to look for - notice any changes in your child. Do they suddenly become shy and withdrawn? Or do they begin acting out - either by abusive behaviors or overly pleasing behaviors? For me, I am embarrassed to admit that I became somewhat of a bully to the other girls at my small Catholic grade school in the 4th and 5th grade. Victims of abuse can rarely stand up for themselves against their abuser. But they may show a higher than normal propensity to take up for other vulnerable children/pets or people - or they may go the opposite way and become an abuser themselves. I did this to the other girls in my grade. I suppose it made me feel like I had some control over someone, and I shudder to think how I might have harmed those girls with my mean words and actions. I have a good friend who I met in recovery who was abused by her father. As an adolescent, she became very "happy go lucky", making jokes, never acting like anything bothered her. She still has a tendency to do this - to overcompensate and act like nothing is wrong. All of these are signs that a child/person is covering up something they don't want others to see.
During that time (around age 10/11), I also had trouble sleeping at night and developed a mysterious stomach ache. My pediatrician told me to excercise before bed and advised me to stop drinking milk, thinking I was lactose intolerant. Stomach aches and trouble sleeping are often signs to look for.
The next few years (highlighting signs to look for) are somewhat of a blur in my memory. When I was 12 or 13 and my older brother went off to college, he began having panic attacks and other problems, and there were frequent shouting matches between him and my parents during his visits home. I didn't know what was happening, as there was a lot of secrecy and closed doors, but it was a very stressful time. I didn't know if what had happened with me and my brother was part of the problems he was having, but I guess part of me worried about those details coming up in whatever he was going through. During that time, I found a book that had the word "incest" on the cover on my parent's dresser. I didn't know exactly what the word meant, but just that it was awful, and I was terrified the truth would be found out. During this time, as I was just starting to get my period, they were incredibly heavy, and I was worried something was very wrong with me. I now know that my body was under tremendous stress from everything that had happened and was happening. At that point in time, though, I just thought it was me - something was wrong with my body. It was very hard for me to tell my mother about this and when I finally did - by writing her a note because I couldn't speak the words - she took me to a male gynocologist and I had a pap smear at 12 or 13 years old. It was a scary time for me and I don't remember what came of the doctor's visit, but I suppose I just dealt with the heavy periods for a year or so and then my periods became infrequent, which I attributed to playing sports in high school. In hindsight, I wish I had been taken to a female gynocologist, someone who I could relate to, who would have explained things to me and asked me questions that might have been helpful. Again, during all of this, I never attributed what was happening with my body to the experiences with my brother. I never dared think of the possibilities. Apparently, no one in my family, school, pediatrician's office, etc. did either. I would offer now, though, that changes in a girl's menstral cycle could be a signal that she is dealing with deeper issues. And I would also offer that in a family with several children, when there is a problem with one child, realize that other children are probably being affected in some way too. It is understandable to focus on the child that appears to be most "in crisis", but seek out the resources available to understand needs of each family member. It is likely the child who appears to be the "toughest" is hiding an incredible amount of pain.
I don't know if the gynocologist visit was before or after my visit to a pyschologist, but I am shocked to reflect back on the fact that no one connected the dots between the two occurances. During the time that my brother was having panic attacks, he was admitted to a hospital for pyschological treatment and underwent group therapy. He came to the realization that he may have done something to hurt me. My parents took me to a male pyschologist in a big city an hour away from our rural home. They told me the night before my appointment that we would be going the next day. I remember, I went right to sleep that night, not like the nights of worrying I had spent months and maybe years before. When incest occurs in the family system, it is a symptom of much bigger problems. I realize now that my family was dysfunctional in many ways, and the tone of families like this is: "Don't rock the boat. Don't say how you really feel. No one can handle the truth, so just keep it to yourself". My father told the psychologist something like, "We know this is probably nothing... probably just the kids were wrestling around together or something, but just in case we wanted to get it checked out". I thought it would be easier on everyone - and probably myself - if I went with this story. So I did. I lied to the pyschologist and said my parents were just overprotective and nothing had happened. My brother never knew I didn't tell the truth. It was a missed opportunity for both of us and our entire family to undergo further treatment and begin the healing work. As much as I regret that I lied that day, I forgive myself because in incest families, the fear of being "found out" for not being perfect is so strong, it is almost impossible to go against the grain. At 13, after being victimized, my voice had deeply retreated way into my being. It would take a long time to reclaim it.
So - since I alone knew that my family was not "normal", I began a quest to help make us appear normal. I made sure the house was clean. I mowed the yard when no one else cared. I went shopping for Christmas and birthday presents. I never wanted anyone else's feelings to be hurt, maybe I never wanted to admit my own pain and vulnerability. I became "a pleaser". Somehow, this gave me control over something, everything, and a sense that I was valued for something - for making other people happy. I excelled in school and at home because of it. Women often tell ourselves we are "perfectionists". Where does this need to be perfect come from? For me, it came from needing to cover up the imperfections of my family of origin. It was a strength in one sense, allowing me to get a scholarship that paid for my college education and to take on many leadership roles. But in my personal life, it prevented much needed growth and healing from ever happening, ensuring I would fall into abusive patterns with men year, after year, after year.
I realize I am now writing a novel, but as I think about the signs to look for, there are just so many. Something else worth mentioning that is embarrassing to talk about, but in case it could help others... my breasts never properly developed as a teenager. I was always incredibly self conscious about this. So - when I was 24 and had been working for a couple of years and was in a serious relationship with someone I thought I was going to marry, I purchased and underwent breast augmentation surgery. I told myself I was doing it "for me" - to feel better about my body that I had been ashamed of for most of my life. I spent everyday before breast augmentation wishing I had "normal" breasts and thinking about getting implants. I spent everyday after the surgery wishing I had never gotten them. While some may think fake breasts enhance a woman's appearance, I always felt incredibly fake, not like myself. I was never comfortable in my own skin. And yet, still - I never attributed that feeling to the incidences that happened with my brother at age 10. (Other issues related to abuse that I did not encounter, but believe are traceable to sexual abuse are: eating disorders, physical mutilation (cutting, etc.), and addictions of alcohol, sex, smoking, etc. When our bodies are crying out, telling us they have been abused, we do a lot of things to try to self medicate. My drug of choice was perfection and achievement. There are many others.)
Meanwhile, because I am on a roll (I apologize for the avalanche that is happening), I had long term relationships with 4 men during my twenties. I never kissed a guy that I did not go on to date for a year or two years, at least. So I was never a woman who felt like I had to be with a guy. But if I did date a guy, I was entirely committed to him - his friends and family, his world. Mine, apart from him, did not seem to matter. And yet, each guy never treated me the way I treated him. In the end of each relationship, I was abandoned and left with a wounded heart. And, at 28, I recieved a phone call from my gynocologist, a female doctor, that my pap smear came back with results that I had HPV, a sexually transmitted disease. Although my friends reasurred me that "everyone has HPV", it was devastating to me. Yes, I had had sexual intercourse before marriage, but only with a few men, each of whom I had dated for a long time before crossing that line. It was this turn of events, after a decade of failed relationships and my personal health in question, that led me to seek deeper answers. But I did not turn to science, psychology or medicine. I turned to the only thing I could think of - to God and The Church. I began rekindling my faith and spirituality, which, ironically, led me into the most dangerous relationship of my life - the engagement with the emotionally abusive religion teacher, which was the tipping point for me to finally get help.
Ironically, it was my brother who saved me from the abusive engagement and suggested I talk to a therapist, which I had a lot of embarrassment about needing to do. But eventhough my family might have thought I was struggling with something, they did not dream it was child sexual abuse and they did not want to talk about it. At 31, when I did tell my family the truth about what happened with my brother, it was strangely validating to know that what I intuited at 13 was actually true. They did not want to hear it. "Maybe his hand slipped" my father said. "Maybe you liked having attention from a muscular older brother" my mother said. They were concerned about what other people would think and what would happen to my brother. "What if he kills himself? Can you live with that?" were stones of guilt they threw at me, armed with their own fear and denial. My parents are truly wonderful people - my brother and my whole family are, too. The duality of truths is complicated. We are all victims to larger abusive and oppressive systems. Still, it was and is incredibly hard to overcome them. Thankfully, I have a good therapist and continue to arm myself with awareness and learning through a ton of great books, friends, etc. I am, most definitely, a work in progress. The issues with my family are still in progress, too.
As a side note, as I went through therapy and dealt with the many issues related to all of this, I did finally become comfortable in my own skin. My idea of what beauty is changed dramatically. I took voice lessons. I did yoga. And I began accepting the possibility that being sexually abused by a close male relative just before puberty may have caused my breasts not to develop properly in the first place. I will never know for sure, but it is possible that my flat chest was a symptom of the abuse and the shame that came from it, not the cause of my poor body image, like I had always thought. So - I am proud to say that 7 years after having breast augmentation, I went through surgery again - this time to remove the implants. I was scared about what the physical results might be, but I was ready to accept them. I wanted absolutely everything fake to be removed from my body and my being. And now I feel healthier and more beautiful than I ever have before - from the inside out.
At my last gynocologist appointment, which I have to have regularly to monitor my high risk HPV (that has apparently gone away, thank goodness, but could come back at any time), I shared with my gynocologist everything about my past - the abuse as a child, the string of failed relatioships, the engagement with the abusive man, my breast implant history - all of it. It was the first gynocologist appointment in my whole life that I did not feel scared and worried. I felt empowered - I had taken control of my own health and experience. Part of me wondered why she and other doctors had never thought to ask me, based on my health symptoms, if I had ever been molested or abused as a child? I suppose not enough people know to ask.
So I wonder - how many other women are like me - who have health issues which came from abuse that happened as children - who are never given access to their own truths? And how can we, as a society, educate, inform, and encourage families, schools, churches, healthcare workers, etc. to know what to look for to prevent sexual abuse and to ensure those who need treatment recieve essential services to restore their overall health?
The answers begin with your question, Jackie. And so I am so grateful that you cared enough to ask. Thank you for allowing me to provide a very long answer, probably with more detail than was necessary. It was helpful to one person - me. :) I hope it may help others.
Some online resources that may help:
Statistics about child abuse:
Miss America By Day (written by a woman abused by her father, who took the "perfectionist" route, like me)
DARVO - Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim, Offender - VERY important type of denial to know about when facing an abuser/abusive system. This is a must-have tool of awareness for victims to have when voicing their truths. They will be disbelieved and they need to be ready for it.
Grandchildren of Alcoholics - this was a huge lightbulb for me, explaining my family system. We were and are in many ways a "good family"... and yet, we have behavior patterns that have been passed down for generations which make it almost impossible for us to break out of.
Codependent No More - a wonderful book for women who find themselves needing to control (i.e. "perfect") everything
There are many great books, etc. If anyone wants them, I can provide a list.
Again, thank you.