[CSA Awareness] A child therapist talks about the importance of early care and nurturing in helping a child feel safe.
Children learn to make meaning of themselves and the world around them through early interactions with their parents, close family and adults such as their daycare providers and teachers. Every interaction reinforces the child’s sense of self and informs the way in which she goes on to perceive herself, others and the surrounding environment. Children learn to regulate feelings and behaviours through each of these early relationships, particularly those with their primary caregivers. Children raised by adults who are present, attentive and attuned to their needs develop a sense of trust and a feeling that the world is a safe place. They feel confident as they explore their environment and negotiate relationships.
A traumatic event such as sexual abuse, which is a violation of the child’s body – both physically and psychologically, leads to a sense of mistrust and insecurity in the child and often, a feeling that human beings are a threat. This is a feeling that is extremely difficult for a child to process and comprehend at a conscious level. To understand this psychological process, it is important to consider the neurological impact of sexual abuse on children.
Early childhood is the most sensitive period of brain development. An important aspect of brain development is that primitive parts of the brain such as the brainstem that receive fear and threat stimuli develop prior to the higher order brain processes such as the cortex that facilitate emotional regulation. This makes children particularly vulnerable to traumatic events – both as a victim and a witness. A traumatic experience such as sexual abuse may hinder normal brain development.
Often times, abused children regress which means that their developmental trajectory takes a U-turn and their behaviour deteriorates. For example, toilet-trained children may start having accidents, children may become selectively mute, they may start having sleep-disturbances, or throw tantrums which are not typical.
Childhood sexual abuse is a particularly complex traumatic experience both for the child and for the adults supporting the child through it. First of all, majority of the perpetrators are adults known to the child, often times a parent or close family member. These adults play a crucial role is the healthy development of the child and a breach of trust by them disrupts the attachment system of the child. The child doesn’t know whom to trust.
Two extreme behaviours have been observed in children as a result of disrupted attachment. Children become indiscriminately friendly with strangers on one end making them vulnerable to further abuse. At the other end are kids who shut down and retreat into their shells, unable to advocate for themselves.
Secondly, the acknowledgment of abuse has adverse social implications in a society like ours. Instinctively, we try to hush up the matter without realising the damage it does to the child’s psyche. In turn we communicate to the child that a violation of his body is not an issue that warrants attention, that his plea for help will not be heard, and that he cannot depend on adults to shield him. These children go on to seek comfort in peer relationships which may not meet their developmental needs in an age-appropriate way. Older ones may seek refuge in drugs and alcohol which may provide momentary numbness but also increases their vulnerability and puts them at risk. The inability to process their experience of sexual trauma leads to a variety of psychological disturbances such as depression, eating-disorders and personality disorders among others.
A 5-year old boy was brought in to our centre for a psychological evaluation as he was touching his younger siblings inappropriately. An assessment revealed that he had been molested by his teenage brother. A 5-year old child is learning by example and doesn’t have the cognitive ability to challenge his older brother’s actions. An adolescent girl, on the other hand, experiences abuse very differently. A young teen was evaluated at an eating-disorder clinic following restricted eating over an extended period of time that led to her passing out frequently. An assessment revealed that her father had made inappropriate remarks about her developing body and she believed that by starving herself she would not develop in a way that would attract her father’s attention.
Adults, in the Indian society in particular, are usually ill-equipped to help a child who is a victim of sexual abuse. “What do I do? Where do I go for help? Is my child scarred for life? Have I failed as a parent? This is my fault!” This is a fraction of the questions that go through a parent’s mind upon learning that their child’s privacy has been violated. The honest truth is that we still don’t have specific answers for all these questions. What we do know is that a parent cares for their child to the best of his/her ability, and that a child and her/his family can be helped to process and overcome a traumatic life event. As a responsible adult in a child’s life, we need be very attentive to red flags.
Children must be supervised. Supervision does not mean paranoia.Some sexual exploration is developmentally
appropriate in young children. However, if you notice frequent self-stimulatory behaviours or inappropriate play between dolls, you want to explore this further. Asking direct questions will not get you very far. It is important to meet children where they are at, and communicate at their level. Play is a great way to engage your child. Additionally, pay attention to a sudden change is your child’s behaviour and moods. These behaviours may vary across contexts – stay up-to-date with teacher’s reports, daycare reports and any other context where the child spends a substantial amount of time. If you notice one or more red flags, seek consultation from an expert.
In the future, if your child is having a hard time, pause to think before your react. Ask yourself: Why might she/he be behaving like this? What might she/he be feeling? What might she/he be thinking? How is this making me feel? What can I say/do that will communicate to my child that I understand her? What can I say/do to communicate my expectation in a way that he will understand? Children develop thoughts and feelings at a very young age. It is our task as adults to help them communicate these to us in addition to finding a way for us to reach them in ways they understand.
Engage with your child on a daily basis. Play with them, do things together as a family. By doing so, we will not only be more sensitive to a shift in their regular behaviour pattern, we will be better able to track their developmental milestones as well as pre-empt unfortunate circumstances. It is important to foster a relationship of trust and safety so that our children feel comfortable talking to us about everything. Children are delicate and malleable with amazing potential. It is our task as parents to help channel their energy with love, nurturance and containment as they develop into confident resilient individuals.