To acquaint readers with the dynamics of child molestation and to provide some guidelines for handling it.
By: Susan Adams, M. Ed.
Summary: Many more children than it is commonly thought are molested each year in the United States, and elsewhere. The molesting may occur between a child and an aging family member, between the child and an extended family member or close relative, or between the child and a family friend. When the news of the molesting is learned by the other members of the family, it is often met with shock, disbelief, and/or high drama.
This does not serve the child well and serves to create secondary problems to the molesting which would be less likely to occur if the incident were handled calmly.
Molesting of children is far more common than it might be thought. This breach of boundaries often occurs in an alcohol environment because the alcohol serves to relax boundaries between people.
Sometimes a child might be touched inappropriately by a grandparent who has become confused with age. Sometimes a family friend steps over the line, often fueled by alcohol.
Sometimes the perpetrator is a relative distant or close.
In any case, the touching occurs and the child is in the position of telling a competent adult or keeping the secret.
If the family is functioning well, that is, the adults are behaving like adults and the children are clearly being care taken, the child tells because he knows that the adults will handle the problem and he knows that something has ocurred that is inappropriate. This is true unless the child is very young and not yet talking or communicating meaningfully.
It is at this point, when the child tells the competent adults that further damage may or may not happen. Unfortunately, many adults become so horror -stricken that they cannot react rationally. If they carry on and rant and rave about the obscenity of it all, then the child may decide that he has been truly damaged and victimized. This evolves to the possibility of using the victim position for gain. That position may stick. This is particularly true if the adults become dramatic about the event.
Rather, it would be useful to hear the news from the child with calm and logic. The adult(s) inquire about what has actually happened. It is then explained to the child that he is correct in telling about what has happened. It should not have happened. Grandpa or the friend or whomever is confused. The adult goes on to explain that these parts of the body feel good when touched–by anyone. However, the child is too young for such touching and that one day the “right” person will come along and the touching will be pleasant and appropriate. It is just not appropriate now and the adult will take steps to protect the child so that this does not ever happen again.
The parent then makes sure the child can lock his door and makes sure the child is NEVER alone with the perpetrator again. Thus, the molesting stops and the child is protected, and life goes back to normal with no catastrophe marked.
The adults in the family then confront whomever has breached the boundary and steps are taken to insure the child’s safety. That may or may not include the authorities depending on the nature of WHO has molested the child and the surrounding circumstances.
Let’s look at the other scenario in which the adults, the parents, are not acting like adults. Someone in the family is depressed or alcoholic, or angry and explosive, or in some other ways does not look like an adult. Here, the child does NOT tell for fear of being blamed or not believed, or for fear of giving the parents something else to worry about.
In this case, the child does not get protected. There is no one to normalize the event and stop the molesting. Therefore, it may continue with the child winding up feeling guilty and bad.
There is a third scenario in which the child does tell and is believed by one parent and not the other. Usually when this happens, the rejecting parent is behaving in that manner out of guilt for not knowing or stopping the abuse.
The damage to the child is still an issue because the child has been accused of the crime of lying. This hurts trust and the sense of being protected.
When the child does not get protected damage occurs. The child has met an unfriendly world at an early age and trust is affected. People may become suspect. The child closes himself off-partly to protect himself from others and partly to protect them from him since he feels that he is bad and dirty. He protects his secret. Many adults, molested as children, have never told anyone. The secret comes out if they wind up in the office of a perceptive therapist.
Children who have been molested usually (I have not known one who did not) grow up into adults who lack self-worth. They fear speaking up for their own rights because their feelings have been stomped upon as children. Someone comes along who is big and powerful and walks on the feelings of the child by saying that what ‘I” want is more important than what you want or feel. So the child learns to back down and keep quiet for fear of bringing on conflict which he hasn’t the skills to handle.
The other issue is that the emotional abandonment that goes with handling such an occurrence alone gets set in the child’s brain. Going forward, everything unpleasant feels like more molesting even if it is not. By this, I mean, that going forward the child feels that his feelings are being stepped on even if they are not and he feels powerless to do anything about it.
If the molesting is of a more serious nature-if it occurs between the child and a parent or stepparent, and if it continues then over time, there is another issue. The child gets elevated into an adult role by protecting the molestation secret. He or she keeps the secret with the person who is doing the molesting. In fact, everyone who is out of the secret becomes unavailable to the child. This robs the child of support from anyone who is not in on the secret which is everyone but the molester.. The child basically loses his childhood and may grow into an adult who protects others inappropriately and seeks relationships that are unbalanced in which he is always in the caretaker position or in the role of being helpless and needing the caretaking. These relationships have a poor prognosis because they are unbalanced and wear out the caretaker over time.
Molested kids who have not been protected carry aspects of depression as well. They may seek anti-depressants as adults and they may be prone to physical ailments. This latter may well be the result of carrying the anxiety of the secret which wears away at the immune system. It is not so much disease that kills us, but the anxiety that causes the disease that kills.
So, the children who tell when they are molested and receive protection and calm generally grow up just fine without problems with intimacy. They can be normal, non-secretive adults capable of partnering and having fulfilling sex lives.
For the children who don’t tell or don’t get believed, the problems can be multiple.
These kids tend to grow to adulthood without really maturing. They want caretaking because they didn’t get it or they look over-competent and controlling. This latter is a result of not having adults to depend upon. The over-control is a form of protection since bad things happened when the child was not in control. Control and emotional abandonment go together. The former is to prevent the latter, but it doesn’t work.
Sometimes the more resilient adults find themselves in therapy offices and the story comes out. Is it too late?
At this point it becomes important to find out if anyone is left in the family who can be told.
I do not pressure these clients into doing anything. However, if they volunteer the information there are still things that can be done. Remember, trust is a big issue here so there must be lots of trust between therapist and client and this can take a long time.
However, the job of the therapy would be to help the client tell the significant others in the family. The client needs to find out what the mother or father or both-or aunts, uncles, older siblings, would have done had they known. The issue is still one of protection. If we get this far, the family members apologize in a heartfelt manner for what the victim has endured. The family also apologizes for whatever was going on that rendered them unavailable or rendered them to APPEAR to be unavailable to the victim at the time. Confronting the molester if he is still around is ideal but difficult to accomplish.
Molestation victims tend to see the molester as large and powerful, almost forever. The purpose of the confrontation for the victim is to see how immature and powerless they really are.
In summary, it is not the molestation, itself that causes the damage to children.. If it is short-term and if the child tells and gets protected, everyone can move on. The damage occurs when the reactions to the news are dramatic and catastrophic or when the child keeps the secret.