Coordinated Community Response: Why Children Remain Silent about Sexual Abuse

Victim Advocate, Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin

Most adults believe they would know if a child were being victimized, but the truth is, they won’t always know unless a child tells someone about the abuse. There are several reasons why children avoid disclosing abuse and ways to help them feel more comfortable about disclosing it.

Regardless of the type of abuse a child experiences, most children feel personally responsible for it. Often this occurs because perpetrators make abused children believe it’s their fault or that they will be in trouble or sent away if they tell. 

This feeling of self-blame can also lead to embarrassment, shame or humiliation – feelings that are often so strong that they override the choice to tell anyone about the abuse. For male victims, sexual stereotypes and concerns regarding homosexuality can pose additional barriers for the discloser. 

Another reason why children keep silent is that perpetrators often tell them to keep the abuse a secret – that it’s something special between the two of them. Let children know that they should never keep a secret that involves someone seeing or doing something to private parts of their bodies. 

Sexual predators like to instill fear in and/or threaten children. By lowering children’s self-esteem, they make children hesitant to tell their story of abuse out of fear that no one will believe them. Threats can include physical harm to the child, the child’s parents, siblings, friends or even a pet. 

Watch out for grooming, a process perpetrators use to earn children’s trust and compliance for two reasons: to see how a child will respond to advances, and to train the child victim to receive continued and more advanced sexual contact. Parents, caregivers and other adults in a child’s life can be victims of grooming, too, as predators establish an environment in which they can have access to, alone time with and responsibility for a child victim.

When teaching children about body safety and trusted adults, follow these helpful points to avoid making the child feel the blame or shame of the abuse: 

• Reinforce that it would never be the child’s fault if someone asked to see or do something to their private body parts for no good reason or just to play a game. 

• Establish and maintain a safe environment in which children can talk about difficult topics and times when they are or have been scared or worried. Start a conversation about less serious topics such as disagreements with siblings or friends and how to handle being mad or sad; this helps to increase the likelihood that children will tell you if something were to happen. 

• Together, create a list of safe adults to talk to, such as parents, grandparents, teachers and doctors. The Family Services Sexual Assault Center, and all offer good resources to help with these conversations.

The Sexual Assault Center can help connect victims to appropriate services, and it provides services, including prevention education, in Brown, Door, Marinette and Oconto counties. Reach the center through its 24/7 hotline at 920.436.8899. In addition, there are child-advocacy centers with staff members who are trained to help children talk about what they are experiencing, such as sexual abuse. 

This article is brought to you in part by the Door County Coordinated Community Response (CCR) to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Teams and the Door County Elder and Adult-at-Risk Interdisciplinary Team.