Warning: This post contains mention of sexual and psychical abuse and may be triggering to some readers.
In the past week, it has been nearly impossible to turn on the news or flip through a newspaper without being confronted with high profile allegations of child sexual abuse.
As a result of the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we know that in the last 35 years, 4,444 people reported to superiors within the church that they were victims of abuse.
LISTEN: The child sex-abuse survivor who fought back. Post continues below.
The data, which will be released in full at the end of 2017, also found that the average time between the alleged abuse taking place and the victim coming forward, was no less than 33 years.
The findings are overwhelming and horrific. To imagine the most vulnerable among us being preyed upon by those they trusted most, is a betrayal and a crime of unimaginable depravity.
As strong as our inclination might be to look away, and to imagine that child sex abuse is something that happens over ‘there’ to children we do not know, the evidence very much tells us otherwise.
We owe it to our children – to the children we love and care for – to know what signs to look out for.
According to the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence and the Queensland Government Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services, there are a number of behavioural indicators to be aware of.
- An unusually sophisticated understanding of sexual behaviour
- Sexual play with toys, or sexual behaviour towards other children
- Sexual themes demonstrated in artwork or stories
- Regressive behaviour, e.g. resuming thumb sucking, bed wetting, excessive clinginess
- Hurting animals
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sudden changes in appetite
- Nightmares and sleep disturbances
- Deteriorating relationships with their peers
- Self harm or self mutilating
Mamamia spoke to Carissa Rodgers, a counsellor and psychotherapist specialising in emotional, physical and sexual abuse and child stress and trauma, about the signs many of us may not know about.
The most critical, according to Rodgers, is "sudden and unexplained behavioural change."
"A child who was formerly sociable and all of a sudden they don't want to talk is a sign to look out for," Rodgers explained.
"Our emotional response comes from the body," she said, "so whatever is going on for us, it will physiological show in how we carry ourselves. We carry an enormous amount of shame in posture... you can see shame in downcast eyes and in slumped shoulders."
How to talk to children
Professor Daryl Higgins, the Director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University, said that the most important thing a parent, teacher or adult in a child or young person's life can do, is open the lines of communication.
"You have to first of all start with creating that warm environment," Higgins told Mamamia.
LISTEN: Sarah Monahan speaks to Mia Freedman about on No Filter about facing her abuser, Robert Hughes, in court. Post continues below.
From Higgins' research, they've found that children are far more likely to open up when they feel trusted and empathised with.
"They're not going to open up about child sexual abuse first thing," Higgins said. "Always listen to their concerns... our capacity as adults in their environment, teachers, parents, or any other adult really, we need to be showing that we're taking their concerns in a whole range of areas seriously, so that if something big happens in regards to their sexual safety, they'll act on it."
Higgins advises that we ask questions like, "How are things going?" or "What's bothering you?" and be very aware of how we respond once they do tell us their concerns.
We should validate how they're feeling and empathise with them before jumping to any 'fix it' strategies, because we want children to know that they can, in Higgins' words, "trust their feelings."
All those small conversations, where we ask "How did you go today?" and remind them that how they feel matters, add up in the end, and mean that if something big does happen, they will be far more inclined to tell us.
If you or someone you know requires information or support regarding child sexual abuse, you can call the following numbers.
Bravehearts - 1800 272 831.
Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800
Lifeline – 13 11 14