Silence is the best friend of child abuse. Silence facilitates child abuse in 4 ways:
1) People stay silent when they suspect child abuse. The abuse continues, the child suffers, the abuser wins.
2) Parents and caregivers are silent when they could be talking to their children about love, privacy, boundaries, respect, sex, and abuse. The abuser wins because children are not empowered with the information they need to stay safe.
3) Survivors stay silent about their experiences. The abuser wins because s/he is free to continue abusing other children.
4) We, as a society and often as individuals, are silent about child abuse in our general conversations with each other. We can’t (or won’t?) talk about it
We know that abusers depend on illusion, manipulation, ignorance, deceit, secrets and lies to be able to access and abuse children.
Merely by communicating with each other, talking about it, uncovering their lies, being wise to their manipulations, being awake and aware and vigilant – we can prevent so much abuse and suffering.
So why are people still so reluctant to talk? Why is child abuse still very taboo? If we know talking about it could help prevent it, and ultimately keep children safe, why don’t we just talk?
1) Why do people stay silent when they suspect abuse?
Fear of offending/upsetting people – It is hard to speak up when you suspect abuse. No-one is saying it is easy. If the abuser is unaware they are being abusive and harming their child (as often is the case with neglect, which can be extremely physically dangerous and is always psychologically dangerous), it can be particularly hard, especially if the abuser is someone you know/love. Children love their parents and often continue to seek their approval, even if they are abused by them, and may themselves express concern for their parent if the abuse is addressed. Ultimately, a child who is living in a consistently abusive environment is likely to experience great psychological and physical damage that may effect their entire lives. It is up to YOU to do everything you can to ensure they are safe. Do you care more about offending people, or seeming to be interfering, or do you care more about the safety of the child? No brainer.
Uncertainty – Often you cannot know for sure that a child is being abused. But that you suspect it is enough to require ACTION. If you suspect abuse, but are not sure, then there is no harm in seeking advice. If you are wrong, that will become evident, and your mind can be put at rest, whilst no child is left at risk. If you are right, you might just be answering a defenseless and powerless child’s’ prayers. You don’t have to be certain. It’s not your job to prove it. Having genuine reason to be concerned about the well-being of a child is enough to require action.
Fear of repercussions – This is understandable; no one wants to put themselves in danger. But if you are afraid, try to imagine how the child must be feeling. If you are afraid of repercussions seek independent, confidential advice from a service like the NSPCC’s Helpline (UK) or Childhelp helpline (USA), or report concerns anonymously. If you need advice of reporting abuse within the family, go here
Fear of not being believed – You are only one person. You can only do what is feasibly possible for you to do. If you are not believed and you are certain of abuse, document everything, stay vigilant, keep reporting separate concerns as/when they occur and seek independent advice.
Not knowing where to go – Go here for advice, support and contacts on reporting concerns about a child.
When people who suspect abuse are silent, abuse continues, and children suffer. Doing nothing contributes to the suffering, allowing further attacks on the same or other victims. If you are silent when you know a child is being abused, you have complied with the abuse. This is unacceptable, and in most counties/states, illegal. If a vulnerable child is relying on you, you must, you must do all you can to protect them and other children.
Lets make no bones about it: silence is deadly. Child abuse KILLS children. It also maims them, steals their innocence, prevents them from developing healthily and does untold damage not visable to the eye, present long after physical injuries have healed…if they heal at all.
If a child needs help, always, always be there for them. Don’t convince yourself that someday, someone will help. Today IS someday. You ARE someone. Speak out for children who cannot speak out for themselves.
2) Why are parents/caregivers reluctant to talk to their children?
Thinking they are to young – Even pre-school children can begin to learn about the names for parts of their bodies, about personal boundaries, privacy (bathroom/sleeping arrangements), safe secrets (ie a birthday present) vs unsafe secrets (ie something that makes you unhappy/uncomfortable), respect and non-violence. Of course it must be sensitive and age appropriate– you do not want to create a climate of fear and inhibit natural development and healthy curiosity about people and the world. Empowering children is the opposite of scaring them – it is providing them with relevant information to enable them to better protect themselves.
Embarrassment – Why are you embarrassed? You talk to your kids about all sorts of things in order to protect them (fire drills, road safety etc), why not personal safety? You’ve changed their nappies, cleaned up their vomit, been dribbled on and slept on and everything in between. You love them; you don’t want them to be unsafe – especially when some child abuse is preventable and you can make sure they are better protected. You wouldn’t dream of putting them in your car and not using the seat belt. Talk to them about their bodies, about relationships, love, sex, anything they want. Answer their questions as best you can. For help, resources like books and advice on talking to kids about these issues, go here.
Naivety/Fear – Some parents think if they don’t talk to their children about difficult topics, such as sex, then their children won’t know and won’t then do such things. This is an incredible fallacy and an underestimation of the natural and instinctual curiosity of children. If you don’t talk to them, they will learn from someone else, and that is a massive responsibility to leave to some unknown person, and leaves your children vulnerable. Talking about it does not mean they will do it, and actually studies have shown that children who are educated about sec tend to have sexual relationships at a later age than children who are not aware, and are also more likely to practice safe sex.
Thinking its unnecessary – Denying the facts will not make them go away. Children need to know so that they can take care of themselves, and make informed, responsible choices.
Assuming children know – Why would you assume they know, if you don’t tell them?
Because their parents didn’t – Maybe if previous generations had known the importance of communication in abuse prevention, we would not be seeing such high prevalence of mental health problems in today’s generation.
When parents do not talk to their children about their bodies, about love, respect, sex and abuse (sensitively and age-appropriately) they create conditions that make their children more vulnerable to abuse. Not talking about it teaches children that it is not something to talk about. It provides the perfect foundation for shame and secrets. This makes the abusers job of convincing/intimidating a child into keeping secrets, much easier. Children who’s parents teach them about privacy, respect, their bodies, sex and personal boundaries are empowered, making them less easy ‘prey’ for predators. Children who are taught about love, respect and responsibility, through example and conversation, are more likely to have healthy relationships as adults, because they will not accept or perpetrate domestic violence. Children who’s parents talk openly with them about their bodies and about sex, are teaching that there is no shame, no guilt, no embarrassment in talking about such subjects, meaning children are more likely to speak out if they are abused.
3) Why do survivors stay silent about their abuse?
Fear of abuser – Abusers can use a whole host of techniques to keep a victim quiet, including, but not limited to, threats, intimidation and violence.
Fear of breaking up family
Fear of not being believed – The Jimmy Savile tragedy and others like it, highlight this problem. Abusers can be so manipulative, so charming, so ‘respectful’ on the outside, that it can be really difficult for people, particularly family members, to believe s/he could be capable of abuse.
Feelings of guilt/shame/responsibility – It is almost impossible to even begin to imagine the effects of abuse, and the confused feelings the survivor may feel. Survivors have spoken about how they felt betrayed by their bodies, that physically may respond to the sexual stimulation whilst their minds are screaming ‘No!’, or so detached that they are ‘no longer there’. For some survivors, the abuse may have been the only attention they receive and thus they equate it with positive attention and feel guilty for ‘enjoying’ it.
Grooming – Grooming describes a process by which predators select and ‘create’ a victim, and maintain their silence. Victims may believe they are in a ‘loving’ relationship. They may become dependent on the abuser and comply with the abuse. They may be coerced, intimidated or bullied into silence.
No one to tell – There may simply be no one they trust enough to tell. Telling makes you vulnerable and requires the survivor to have tremendous trust in the receiver of such sensitive and potentially devastating information.
Thought it was normal – Some children have known nothing but abuse, and so accept it as part of everyday life.
Could not find/speak the words.
There is a myriad of reasons why survivors may not speak out about abuse. It is estimated that 1 in 3 children who are sexually abused to not tell (*NSPCC). It takes tremendous courage and strength to overcome the obstacles and shatter the silence after experiencing abuse. When survivors can find that courage, they make tremendous strides against child abuse; preventing their abuser re-offending (assuming the justice system does its job), raising awareness about abuse so that other children may be better protected, and paving the way so that other survivors can be released from the shackles of secrets and begin their own healing journey.
4) Why don’t we, as a society, talk openly about child abuse and how to prevent it?
Refusal to acknowledge it happens – Some people are unable to process the sad fact that there really are people who can hurt children.
Unwilling to talk about negative things – It is a very emotionally sensitive (and can often be an absolutely heart-breaking) topic. But the more we prevent it, the less tragic it becomes. Not talking about it does not change anything for desperate children it does not make the suffering go away. If it’s hard to talk about it, imagine how hard it must be to experience.
Fear – But, what of? Do we think that if we talk about it, it becomes real? (Newsflash: Its very real, too real, for many children). Fear of abusers? (knowing one? Being one? Being accused of being one?) One thing is for sure – talking about it is much less scary than letting it happen, and the legacy it can leave for the survivor and society.
Its very complicated – It is complicated. It can give you a massive headache, just thinking about it. The responsibility to these needy children can seem overwhelming. There are so many contributing factors. But you are not expected to understand everything, or save every child in need. You are only needed to do what you can, whatever you can, when you can. If everyone, EVERYONE, does that, together we can end child abuse.
Ignorance – Can some people really be unaware that child abuse is a real problem, that really effects thousands of children, everyday?