R is a 12 yr. old girl. She is a brilliant student, is part of her school’s choir, enjoys movies and is crazy about music. At home, her parents dote on her; she is the apple of everyone’s eyes. It is time for her favourite festival, and all her relatives and parent’s friends came to visit. A couple of times, her parents left her in trusted company and went around wishing greetings to their acquaintances. One fine day, her parents noticed that she is not behaving her usual self, her grades have fallen, teachers report her to be unresponsive in the class, and her friends say that she shouts at them all the time. In private, R, cries often and has even thought of committing suicide. What went wrong?
The most heinous thing that a human can ever do is abuse a child. Child abuse is: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation.” Although, there is a lot of hue and cry over child abuse, it is largely restricted to abuse where there is physical contact involved; child abuse is a broad term that encompasses emotional abuse and child neglect as well.
In the example cited above, it seems most likely that R was sexually abused by someone she was fairly familiar with. As per the National Study on Child Abuse (2007), 50 % of the sexual abusers are people known to the child or persons in positions of trust & authority. Further, in India, 2 out of every 3 children are physically abused. Apart from sexual abuse, this also involves a parent hitting their children or corporal punishment at school, all of which can leave scathing marks on the child’s personality.
As parents we often trust our friends and family members with the responsibility to look after our children in our absence, and there is no harm in it. After all, one cannot be paranoid and limit the positive exposure that children will get by being in other’s company. So what can parents or caretakers do to ensure that even in their absence, their children can stay safe? Lets’ look at some options:
- Being Supportive: It is imperative that you as a parent are your child’s rock. Abuse or no abuse, if your child trusts that you won’t judge him / her, they will always confide in you. This will keep you aware of what is happening in their world and if ever something as drastic as physical or sexual abuse happens, you will be there to listen and support. Being emotionally unavailable to your children, whether in good or bad times, amounts to emotional abuse. In India, 83 % of our children are subjected to emotional abuse at some point in their lives.
- Believe: Most often, when a child reports about an incident of abuse, the parents try to hush it up in order to avoid embarrassment in front of friends or family or worse they either don’t believe it or pretend not to. As parents, you are your child’s only hope after their world has turned upside down, and not trusting them at this crucial moment, only add to the trauma they are experiencing. This can also boost the morale of the abuser. When the perpetrator of the abuse, witnesses that no action is being taken against them, it may give them the courage to repeat the incident with your child or with other children.
- Teach: We as teachers or parents teach our children things like table manners, talking to elders, studying, and other things all the time. Teaching about good or bad touch, is as crucial as other life skills. Children and teenagers should know what is appropriate touching and what is not, and why is that so. Children should be made aware about their right to not let anyone touch them, even if that person is the child’s parent. Parents should also respect the child’s right to privacy; asking an 8 yr. old child to change clothes in front of you is not warranted. If you are not comfortable talking about this to your children, then approach a professional. Psychologists and counsellors are trained to talk about sensitive topics to people of all ages.
- Availability: There always will be situations when your child is either alone at home or with someone you trust will keep him/her safe. Devise your own way of communicating with your children. What if, you are not at home, and an uncle from the neighbourhood drops by? Should your child open the door and let him in or should the uncle be asked to return only once you are back? Sit down with your children and list down all the possible scenarios that are likely in your absence and how should they deal with those situations.
Some common signs of physical / sexual abuse:
- Unexplained injuries or physical signs of abuse often backed by unconvincing explanations about the origin of the injury.
- Changes in usual behaviour patterns, sleep and appetite are often the first signs exhibited by an abuse victim.
- A fear of going to certain places or going with certain people. Some abuse victims may totally shun members of the opposite sex and display unexplainable behaviour in their company.
- Falling grades, reduced attendance and aggressive behaviour at school, are also some commonly signs in abuse victims.
- Increase in risk taking behaviours which may also include promiscuous behaviours can be present as a reaction to unaddressed abuse.
The above list is not exhaustive, but merely a glimpse of the various signs of abuse. Some signs are more obvious than others. As parents, trust your instincts. If there is a significant change in the behaviour or emotional state of your children, you should kick into action and find out what is the matter.