Parenting the Sexually Abused Child
written by Rosemary Narimanian of the Philly Kids Play It Safe, and Julie Marks of the National Adoption Center, for the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 1990.
As a prospective adoptive parent, you may have some valid concerns about sexual abuse. You may wonder what the special needs are of children who have been sexually abused and whether you will be able to meet those needs. By acquiring more knowledge, you will feel more confident in taking on the challenges and rewards of adopting a child with special needs.
Many parents who have already adopted sexually abused children feel that their greatest obstacle was lack of information about sexual abuse in general; about their particular child's history; and about helpful resources such as support groups, skilled therapists and sensitive reading materials. This article will provide you with some basic information about child sexual abuse as well as some special considerations for parents who adopt these children.
What Is Child Sexual Abuse?
Child sexual abuse is any forced or tricked sexual contact by an adult or older child with a child. Usually the adult or older child is in a position of power or authority over the child. Physical force is generally not used, since there is usually a trusting relationship between the adult or older child and the child who is abused.
There are various types of sexual activity which may take place. It can include open mouth kissing, touching, fondling, manipulation of the genitals, anus or breasts with fingers, lips, tongue or with an object. It may include intercourse. Children may not have been touched themselves but may have been forced to perform sexual acts on an adult or older child. Sometimes children are forced or tricked into disrobing for photography or are made to have sexual contact with other children while adults watch.
Child sexual abuse does not always involve physical touching. It can include any experience or attitude imposed on a child that gets in the way of the development of healthy sexual responses or behaviors. For example, a child may be a victim of "emotional incest." If a mother tells her son, in great detail, about her sexual exploits, or if a father promises his daughter that she will be his life partner when she turns 18, these would be scenarios in which the child could be considered sexually abused. Siblings who are aware of a brother or sister's victimization, but are not actually abused themselves, may also suffer many of the same effects as an abused child.
In addition, some children experience ritualistic and/or satanic abuse. Ken Wooden, founder of the National Coalition for Children's Justice, defines ritualistic abuse as a bizarre, systematic continuing abuse which is mentally, physically, and sexually abusive of children, and for the purpose of implanting evil.
How Often Does Child Sexual Abuse Occur?
Estimates are that approximately 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 8 boys experience sexual abuse in some way before they are 18. Data on how many of these children live in foster or adoptive homes are not available. Foster care and adoption social workers are now saying they believe the percentages of boys and girls in foster care who have been sexually abused are much higher than in the general population, perhaps as high as 75%. Many came into foster care initially because of sexual abuse and others are children who were re-victimized while in foster care, either by an older foster child or by an adult.
What Behaviors or Signs Might You See in a Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused?
While no one sign or behavior can be considered absolute proof that sexual abuse has occurred, you should consider the possibility of sexual abuse when one or several of these signs or behaviors are present.
Additional Behavioral Signs in Pre-teens and Adolescents
Some Additional Behavioral Signs in Children Who Have Been Ritualistically/Satanically Abused
Are All Children Affected Equally by Child Sexual Abuse?
There is a myth that all children who have been sexually abused are "damaged goods" and that the damage is for life. In fact, with guidance and support a child who has experienced sexual abuse can certainly recover and go on to live a happy, successful life with loving and trusting relationships. However, there are many factors which influence the extent of the child's trauma and subsequent healing process. Some of these are:
Do Boys Who Are Abused Have Special Issues?
Boys who are sexually abused face some additional problems because of persistent myths in our society. Males are rarely viewed as fitting the victim role. When boys get hurt, they are often told "act like a man," "don't be a sissy," "control your emotions." The message to boys is to stand on their own two feet and to take care of themselves. Under these circumstances, a male victim is less likely to tell and therefore cannot begin a healing process. This increases the chances that he may take on the role of the victimizer in an attempt to master his own experience.
A further complication for boys is that the media portray boys who have sexual experiences with older women as going through a "rite of passage" rather than as victims of sexual exploitation. Movies such as "Summer of '42" and "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs" are prime examples of this.
What About Juvenile Sex Offenders?
Some children who have been sexually abused go on to abuse other children. While this is a serious problem, the exact percentage of sexual abuse victims who become abusers is not known.
It is important to realize that these children are victims as well as offenders and need to receive counseling from qualified therapists who understand both aspects of the problem. The therapist must be able to be empathic and understanding of the "victim" but confrontational with the "victimizer."
Victimizers have triggers that precede their behavior. For example, a child may abuse another child when he or she finds him or herself in a vulnerable or stressful situation. Sometimes this is because he or she lacks control or power. This may be when the child gets called a name at school or believes he or she is being punished unfairly. The therapist must help the child to not only recognize his/her own individual triggers but also, to understand the consequences of acting out these impulses.
In other instances, past experiences have left the child overly sexually stimulated. The child needs education and suggestions of alternative positive behaviors to replace the sexually victimizing behavior.
What Do Parents Need to Know When Adopting a Child Who Has Experienced Sexual Abuse?
Parents who adopt children who have experienced sexual abuse need the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules and the patience of Mother Theresa. If you fall short in any of these areas, do not despair. You are in good company. Perhaps, more important is your desire to help a young person grow into a healthy, trusting adult. This is a privilege and one which brings real satisfaction to those who have adopted.
What Do Parents Need to be Aware of About Themselves?
It is very important for you as prospective adoptive parents to be honest with yourselves and with your adoption worker about a number of things:
In addition, there are some other issues that are important for adoptive parents to consider. They are:
What Do Parents Need to be Aware of About Their Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused?
Children who have experienced sexual abuse will probably need help in learning new behaviors and ways of relating. Some of the behaviors and emotions you may see expressed by your child are:
A child who has been sexually abused may feel:
A child who has been sexually abused will benefit from clear guidelines that set the rules both in the home and outside. These kinds of rules will help provide the structure, comfort and security which all children need to grow into healthy adults. Experts in the field of adoption and child sexual abuse believe these guidelines are particularly important during the first year after placement, when the child is working hard to establish new relationships with his/her adoptive family and to build trust.
The following guidelines address topics with specific reference to children who have been sexually abused.
Will Our Child and Family Need Professional Help?
It is very likely that at some time or other parents of a child who was sexually abused will need professional help and support for themselves and their child. The type of therapy that will be the most helpful, that is, individual, couple or family therapy, will depend on a family's particular situation. When a child is being seen in individual therapy, it is important that the parents, who have the primary responsibility for the child, be in close contact with the therapist, or included in the therapy. Try to choose a therapist who is knowledgeable about both sexual abuse and adoption issues and with whom you feel comfortable. If parents are not familiar with the therapy resources in their area, they may want to ask their adoption agency or local mental health center for a referral. There are also some resources listed at the end of this paper which may be helpful with referrals to therapists who are knowledgeable about sexual abuse.
Support groups for adoptive parents or sexually abused children and support groups for victims/survivors are another helpful resource. Adoptive parents who have had a chance to talk with others who understand the experience of parenting a sexually abused child say that this kind of sharing is very useful. Dr.Nicholas Groth, a leading psychologist in the field of sexual abuse, along with many children and adult victims/survivors, say that groups for children can be most effective in the healing process. The opportunity to talk and share with other children who have also experienced sexual abuse reduces a child's sense of isolation and belief that he/she is the only one to whom this has ever happened.
Is the Healing Ever Completed?
Recovery from child sexual abuse is an on-going process. As this process unfolds, the child will ideally move from victim to survivor to thriver. Developmental stages, particularly adolescence and young adulthood, may trigger old feelings about the abuse. For example, the time when an adolescent's body begins to develop physically, or when he or she marries, or becomes a parent may restimulate old feelings and memories.
As discussed earlier, so many factors can influence the extent of the damage to the abused child. While adoptive parents cannot erase what happened to their child earlier in his/her life, you have a wonderful opportunity to provide your child with new, healthier experiences. Those who have made the commitment to parenting a sexually abused child say that the rewards of helping a child grow into a healthy, vibrant adult are very satisfying indeed.
Freeman, Lory. It's My Body. Parenting Press, Inc., Seattle, WA, 1982.
Gil, Eliana. I Told My Secret: A Book for Kids Who Were Abused. Launch Press, California, 1986.
Hindman, Jan. A Very Touching Book...for Little People and for Big People. McClure-Hindman Associates, Durkee, OR, 1985.
Satullo, J. It Happens to Boys Too. RCC Berkshire Press, 1989.
Sweet, Phyllis. Something Happened to Me. Mother Courage Press, Racine, WI, 1981
Sweet, Phyllis. Alice Doesn't Babysit Anymore. McGovern and Mulbacker, Oregon, 1985.
For Parents and Professionals
Father Flanagan's Boys Home. Sexually Abused Children in Foster Care. Boys Town, Nebraska. May be ordered by contacting Father Flanagan's Boy's Home, Boys Town Center, Family Based Programs, Boys Town, NE, 68010, (402) 498-1310.
Gil, Eliana. Outgrowing the Pain. Launch Press, California, 1983.,
Gil, Eliana. Children Who Molest: A Guide for Parents of Young Sex Offenders. Launch Press, California, 1987.
Lew, Mike. Victims No Longer: Men Recovering From Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse. Nevraumont Publishing Company, New York, 1988.
Maltz, Wendy and Holman, Beverly. Incest and Sexuality. Lexington Books, Lexington, MA, 1986.
McFadden, Emily Jean. Fostering the Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused. Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI, 1986.
McFarlane, Kee and Cunningham, Carolyn. Steps to Healthy Touching: A Treatment Workbook for Kids 5-12 Who Have Problems With Sexually Inappropriate Behavior. Kidsrights, Mount Dora, FL, 1988.
Parents Anonymous of Delaware. All In My Family. Parents Anonymous, DE, 1987.
LifeBooks: Every Foster Child Needs One
by Beth O'Malley
Foster children so often have that sense of missing pieces. I should know. I spent my first 5 months in foster care, before being adopted.
Information is gold to any child separated from their biological family. Every tiny piece is precious, whether it's a photo or quote from a child's first foster parent. LifeBooks help put all the pieces together in a way that helps a child make sense and ultimately feel good about his or her history.
"My second foster family reported that I used to make these funny lip smacking sounds as a baby and that the entire family would watch and laugh. This is one of my favorite pieces of information, discovered in my foster care notes" (Beth O'Malley)
This story never appeared in any LifeBook. Instead, my foster parents took the time to share it with my social worker. She found the time to write it in her case notes. The adoption agency then managed to hold onto my case record for 35 years. And the post adoption social worker thought I might find the anecdote amusing.
Talk about teamwork. I'm grateful that every person followed through, giving me this "baby picture" in words that I carry in my heart today.
I'm convinced that my entire life would have been different if I had been given a LifeBook. The absence of information on my birth family meant I had nothing with which to connect with my history. A blank screen. A feeling of floating, or that numb sensation that so many foster children later describe.
"LifeBooks remain important to my childrenThey show that their biological connections are still importantThey will never be forgotten" (Michelle Braxton, single foster/adoptive mother of seven)
Imagine what would be important to you 10 or 20 years later in life. Including school papers, awards, copies of report cards, the birth certificate, locks of baby hair, baby teeth, and mementos increases a LifeBook's value. These volumes will fill in gaps, with words, art work, and photos, if available. Your words can create pictures if none are available.
Speaking of pictures, can you imagine going through life without ever knowing what your mother or father looked like? Foster parents often have the unique opportunity to get photos of birth parents. Foster mother Sandy Parker shared the following story:
"I took three-year-old David for a visit with his birth mother while she was incarcerated. They didn't allow cameras inside the facility. Shortly thereafter she was released, overdosed, and died. So I learned a lesson. At the next visit with a different child I took picturesHis birth mother also died abruptly, but Sam will know what she looked like!"
One foster parent recently lamented that with five foster children, one being medically involved, coupled with caring for an aging parent and her 150-pound dog, she didn't always have the time to complete her children's LifeBooks. It is a tall order.
A team approach to LifeBooks may be the wave of the future. If foster parents can capture a few pages of the child's life, perhaps grabbing a picture of the birth family (regardless of the goal), then the LifeBook has begun. Social workers and/or therapists can add in additional information. Don't forget the birth certificate, which children in foster situations love at any age.
Here are a few suggestions from Dr. Vera Fahlberg, national adoption expert:
At the age of six, I decided that my birth parents had died in a plane crash in Africa. I didn't tell a soul. Then I changed the story but it was still one that featured death. Children with histories of abuse and neglect usually take it further. They somehow believe that they are responsible for being separated from their birth families. This separation was, as one little boy supposed, "because I was bad?" It's the power of magical thinking.
Remember the children's rhyme, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back"? Children believe that they are the center of the universe and so very powerful. Maybe they were moved because they wet the bed that nightthe damaging speculation is endless.
LifeBooks help reduce magical thinking and fantasy. This frees up a foster child to pay better attention in school or be more available to focus on developing painting skills or playing soccer.
LifeBooks help answer questions, increase self-esteem, and teach children the truth. They are the ultimate teaching tool.
LifeBook facts become "memory pegs," says Mimi Robins, originator of LifeBooks in Massachusetts. If children are given the basics, the essentials, then hours of therapy later in life can be saved.
Children need to feel proud of their strengths and those of their birth parents. A LifeBook page on birth parents really helps in those tough adolescent years when identity issues begin to peak. Foster care periods are often the only time when birth parents are usually available to answer questions and discuss talents and hobbies.
Another foster parent advantage is that you can create beautiful LifeBook pages in a very short time. You don't have to do an entire book if other commitments call. Grab a few pieces of nice paper, a couple of pictures, and a handful of markers, and in ten minutes you're done. Nothing fancy, yet it will feel like a treasure to that child.
If you're a scrapbooker, you already create beautiful albums. Add lots of journaling and some "warm, fuzzy" facts about the little things that a child enjoyed in your home. However, don't get caught up in creating the "perfect" LifeBook. After all, the only real mistake you can make is not to begin one.
The ultimate magic to creating a treasured LifeBook is to start it, work on it with a child, and give it to him or her, or to the social worker, when the child moves on. (Making pages with a child is really the best way to do a LifeBook -- it promotes attachment, builds trust, and can be so much fun.) Even if it only has five pages, it is tangible proof to that child that s/he is precious enough to deserve this treasure.
Beth O'Malley, M.Ed. is a former foster baby, an
adoption worker, and the author of LifeBooks: Creating a Treasure for the
Adopted Child and My Foster Care Journey (now available in Spanish).