OF all the child sexual abuse cases that I have come across, perhaps the most complex ones involve abusers who are family members and happen to either live in the child’s home or visit frequently. The dynamics of incest can be complicated due to the relationship, close proximity and access that the abuser has to the child. The abuse often starts when the child is very young.
By the time the child is able to fully grasp the nature of the abuse; feelings of guilt and shame and fear of upsetting or breaking up the family may prevent disclosure. Thus, abuse is rarely revealed. Abusers are more often males and could be an older cousin or brother or men in position of authority and respect in the family such as a father, stepfather, an uncle or a grandfather.
Unfortunately, the disclosure of abuse, either directly by the child or by an adult accidentally witnessing an incident may not necessarily translate into safety for the child or bring an end to the cycle of abuse. The adult family member to whom the abuse is disclosed, due to lack of knowledge about the peculiar dynamics of childhood sexual abuse, may end up either minimising the incident(s) or blaming the child for bringing the abuse onto himself/ herself.
Often the adult is unable to openly confront the abuser or take drastic measures for the child’s safety due to sociocultural norms related to family bond and ‘honour’. All childhood sexual abuse, including incest, can have a long-lasting negative impact on the well-being of the child who may carry the effects through his/ her adult life if the issue is not addressed in a timely, sensitive manner.
Disclosure of abuse may not necessarily translate into safety.
There is no law mandating the reporting of such incidents to a government authority. Our child protection authorities often do not have the capacity and sensitivity to deal with situations of incest or to ensure safety measures for the child. Many times, the adult (often a woman) to whom the abuse is disclosed may find it difficult to proceed because of how she envisions her own relationship with the abuser.
While keeping the child safe from the abuse has to be the topmost priority, leaving the house where the abuser lives or asking him to leave the house may not be an immediate option for many women to whom a child discloses the abuse. However, pending a final and legal solution, some decisive steps can be taken by adults to ensure that the child is safe in the interim.
Believing the child is of utmost importance. Do not blame the child for acting or dressing in a way that may have caused the abuse. The fault of sexual abuse always lies with the adult or older child who has more control and power in the relationship. Try not to leave the child unsupervised in the presence of the abuser. Do not allow the abuser to bathe, dress or put the child to sleep. Seek the support of another trusted family member or friend under whose supervision the child can be left if need be.
If circumstances allow, shift with the child to a safe space till you can decide on other measures. Let the child know about basic safety, for example, locking the room when sleeping and avoiding being alone in the same room as the abuser. Teach the child assertiveness skills such as saying ‘no’ loudly, yelling, walking away, threatening to tell. But the burden of stopping the abuse must not lie on the child. Do not ever insist that the child ‘forgives’ or ‘normalises’ the situation with the abuser.
Make sure the other children in the house are also safe from abuse. Observe the abuser around the other children. Possible behavioural indicators are the adult spending too much time alone with the child, being overly physically playful and not respecting the child’s physical boundaries, showering the child with too many gifts or appreciation, and the child’s discomfort around the adult or sexualised behaviour.
Silence around abuse gives the abuser more power to continue offending. This silence can be broken by confronting the abuser. Share your own observations or the child’s disclosure and set clear boundaries related to acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. In case the abuser is someone who visits the house, limiting and preferably stopping those visits is important.
In case the abuser is an older child, apart from setting clear boundaries, seek professional mental health support for the offending juvenile. If confronting the abuser directly seems daunting, talk to a trusted family member and seek advice about ways of dealing with the issue, especially ensuring the child’s safety. Seek support for the child and yourself from child protection services, counsellors and psychologists that have worked on these issues. The threads around incest and generally around child sexual abuse are tangled no doubt, but taking these steps may help in ensuring our children’s safety.
The writer is a clinical psychologist.
Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2021