I was nearly four years old when I was sexually abused by my Mother’s partner, this abuse would continue for the next three years. My first memory was being awoken from sleep in the middle of the night. He would pull the blankets off me and then guide my sleepy little body into the bathroom. There was a variety of punishments, torture and rituals that he enjoyed but most nights would sound something like “wearing knickers to bed is dirty” “God would be angry with you” “you need to be washed”. I would then be made to shower with him. This is where the sexual abuse happened. The abuse consisted of oral sex, bathing each other and molestation. After the abuse, I remember being curled up in the foetal position in my bed. I was cold and shivering. My hair soaked the pillow and the back of my nightie. The showers and shivering became part of my bed routine for the next three years.
Children who are sexually abused often believe it is their fault and that they are deserving of the abuse.
My four year old trusting mind believed that I was dirty and therefore solely to blame for the “late night showers” as it was all my fault for wearing my knickers to bed. I did not need persuasion, reasoning or justifications as I was frozen in fear and therefore compliant and scared of further humiliation and abuse. After all, this man was someone that my mother trusted enough to live with her children.
Statistics tell us that a child is most likely to be a victim of sexual abuse between the ages of three to eight. And it is overwhelmingly (90-96% likely) that the perpetrator will be someone the child knows and trusts – a family member or trusted friend of the family. This is unarguably why all children need to be educated in Protective Behaviours from as early as possible. You may recall the ‘stranger danger’ campaign alerting children to be cautious of their surrounds & faces they didn’t know – strangers. This campaign was a major set back in keeping our children safe as it distracted both children and more importantly parents from the truth about sexual abuse and where the real danger lies. The statistics overwhelmingly indicate that the child sex offender will be known to the family.
I get it, no one wants to think that someone they trust could hurt their child but the statistics speak for themselves and sadly, the best chance of protecting your child is for myths surrounding sexual abuse to be dispelled and for empowerment to come from facing up to the ‘ugly truth’ and in turn equip children with the correct skills and knowledge to keep themselves safe.
The Protective Behaviours program has several messages that we want ALL children, parent’s caregivers and educators to be empowered with by the time they have completed the program. These messages aim to combat every step of the grooming process that is executed by child sexual predators and therefore empower children, giving them ownership of their bodies and a voice.
We all have the right to feel safe at all times
As we all know, talking about our feelings is difficult for most adults, yet somehow many of us fail to understand why a child would withhold such a burdensome secret of sexual abuse. Understandably so, it still complexes me that for such a long period of time (14 years) it never occurred to me to disclose what I endured.
One of the topics in the Protective Behaviours program is ‘Feelings’. We are teaching children,parents and educators emotional literacy by expanding their feelings vocabulary.
Research indicates that the feeling people struggle expressing the most is shame. “Who would like to share their most shameful experience?” is a question that I often ask my adult participants in my Protective Behaviours workshops. The outcome of this activity is invariably a room full of immobilised adults frozen in fear, fear of being shamed.
For a child this is incomprehensibly difficult. Shame is the most powerful grooming strategy that perpetrators deliberately cultivate in their victims, the purpose of which is to maintain silence and secrecy and therefore acts as a barrier to disclosure.
It is estimated that only 1% of children who are sexually abused will EVER disclose the abuse.
We now know that when a child is able to name a feeling they are much more likely to express the uncomfortable feeling to others. As a child I could not name what I was feeling. My feelings vocabulary was non-existent. I had never heard anyone express their feelings apart from in anger and violence. I was so young when the abuse started, I was in shock and I was in survival mode. I did not know what was happening to me was wrong. I believed that my bedtime routine was normal, it was ‘my normal’. However, surely it goes without saying, I didn’t like it and my body kept the score.
During the abuse my body froze with fear, I was literally scared stiff. Too scared to even breathe. If I did breathe I would hyperventilate. My body never returned to ‘normal’ from that day on. It is more normal than not, for me to be in a state of hyper-vigilance. Always anticipating danger, always on high alert, always scanning my environment for threats (which to me at that time was men) and never feeling safe or relaxed. Like many other trauma survivors, I habitually secured my exit plan, my path to escape. Sound exhausting? It was. It is.
During primary school at age 7, I was frequently exposed to horror in the form of sexual abuse and domestic violence, this sent a consistent stream of adrenaline through my veins. Which in turn, caused chronic stomach-aches accompanied by a disoriented spacey feeling (which I now know was disassociation) and an unrelenting sense of urgency to escape (the flight, fight & freeze response to trauma commonly linked with PTSD). I would frequently complain of the stomach-aches which had become so painful that I was given an emergency appendectomy. Unbelievably, it was later revealed that my appendix was perfectly normal! The stomach-aches continued, no further medical intervention was sought or offered. Another crack I had fallen through.
I can always remember my year two teacher saying to me “Genevieve, pay attention, you look like you have seen a ghost”. I can’t help but wonder, what if this teacher had been educated in Protective Behaviours and was therefore able to identify the signs of abuse in me – the black bags under my eyes, the inability to stay awake in class, constant complaints of a yucky feeling in my tummy and light headedness and the symptom of shock that she had in fact observed in me and verbalised as, me looking “like I’d seen a ghost”.
There are so many ways that anyone who has participated in the Protective Behaviours training could intervene at this point. It’s so important to just start an informed dialogue with children, especially those you feel may be at risk. Not interviewing or interrogating but letting them know that they can talk with you about anything, no matter what it is. In addition, one of the main goals of Protective Behaviours is to create a language that is commonly used in the class-room, at home and in the wider community as a way to talk about feelings and safety. The program is also a way for children to learn skills in areas such as problem solving, assertive communication and seeking help.
The average time someone keeps an abuse secret is is 22 years.
So again, I just can’t help but wonder what if I had been taught about early warning signs- the involuntary physical sensations in my body that happen when I feel unsafe. If I had known that my chronic stomach-ache was my body’s way of telling me that something was wrong, I wasn’t safe AND what if my teacher had taught us in class about creating a ‘Network’ of 5 safe adults we can talk to about anything no matter what it is.
One in three people will not believe a child when they disclose sexual abuse.
If I had known to tell and tell and tell and keep on telling until someone had helped me until my early warning signs had gone away, things just might have been different. I know there’s a lot of if’s but the point I’m trying to make here is my life could have been very different if I had these protective skills and strategies.
Throughout my childhood, I demonstrated a great deal of resourcefulness and resilience by creating my own network & fostering myself out all over the neighbourhood, to my best friend’s families. It’s important to note here that I could have been placing myself at further risk of abuse but fortunately for me I have many people to which I owe a great deal of thanks to for meals, safety, love and care – I was lucky. I would often stay for weeks at a time and I never wanted to go home. If only they had seen the signs, things could’ve been so different. I’m not pointing fingers, I’m not being ungrateful I have so much gratitude for these families and without them I truly can’t even imagine what my life would have held but what I am doing is advocating for Protective Behaviours and the vast difference I believe it could have made had someone, anyone, seen the signs.
‘From your wound is born your Passion’.
Child sexual abuse stole my childhood and wreaked havoc in every area of my life. The trauma has left a deep, painful wound that I believe will take at least this lifetime to heal. For years I have struggled to find any positives from enduring such a horrific childhood although I have often thought there’s just got to be an upside to this existence and I know now that I have found it.
I have found the silver lining to a life lived in much suffering. As a qualified trauma specialist, I spend my days empowering children with the knowledge and information I wished I had known. I educate others on the how to keep our children safe and prevent abuse. I am fiercely passionate about the Protective Behaviours program because I have seen it work time and time again. After nearly twenty years of working in the field of trauma and abuse I truly believe that Protective Behaviours is currently the most effective program available to combat child sexual abuse.
NOT THE END.