If a child tells an adult they’re being sexually abused, there’s a one in three chance they won’t be believed.
“We know from our practice that believing children is still something that adults find very difficult to understand and comprehend,” says Deirdre Thompson, a clinical psychologist with Bravehearts.
“Certainly they will say that oftentimes it’s because they don’t have the confidence or the skills to actually respond appropriately to that child, that leads them to not believe or to not act.”
One in five children in Australia will be sexually abused before they turn 18, Bravehearts says.
What to look out for
Children can demonstrate varying behaviours depending on their age and developmental ability.
However, Dr Thompson says there are behavioural signs of abuse.
“Very young babies, sadly, who are affected by sexual assault may show signs of distress, for example during nappy change time,” she says.
“Or children may become quite distressed around a particular person if someone indicates they are going to be left alone with them.”
Dr Thompson says eating disorders and self-harm can be more severe behavioural signs.
“Eating disorders can prevail as a way to try and control what they can control in their lives,” she explains.
“Self-harming as a very self-destructive way of either trying to stay in touch with reality or to cry for help to the adults around them.”
The signs of a perpetrator
Dr Thompson says offenders can also display behavioural indicators, namely paying particular attention to one child.
“They might shower particular attention and gifts on that child, they might seek opportunities to be alone with that child, and oftentimes under the guise of helping out the parents, making it all very plausible and therefore even more difficult to detect,” she says.
Dr Thompson also warns that perpetrators may encourage children to engage in secrets and secret behaviour.
She encourages parents to be vigilant around their child’s social media accounts.
“That’s a place where predators certainly have found a way to target children that goes under the radar of most parents,” she says.
Common indicators in offenders
The recent royal commission into child sexual abuse focused on institutions, but Dr Thompson says the majority of abuse is perpetrated within the family network.
“And whilst the work of the royal commission has been important and invaluable, sadly for a lot of survivors of child sexual assault their abuse didn’t occur in an institutional setting,” she says.
“And therefore their opportunity to speak to a royal commission or have their stories heard wasn’t made available to them.”
While Dr Thompson is hesitant to detract from the success of the royal commission, she now hopes that more attention is given to family abuse.
“We need to apply the same lens and the same recommendations and to provide services and support to hopefully better prevent and protect our children from being subjected to child sexual assault in the first place,” she says.
“The numbers are indicative of an epidemic, and yet we are not appearing to put the resources and attention to this topic in the way that I believe we should be.”
What if they’re making it up?
If a child tells you they have been sexually abused, research shows you should believe them.
Dr Thompson says the instances of false disclosures are extremely low.
“We know that around 96 per cent of disclosures are true,” she says.
“And, more to the point, it’s important to understand that children don’t make this up, they tell someone because they want the abuse to stop.”
Lyndal, an advocate against child sexual abuse, was 12 when she was repeatedly abused by the house master at the Anglican school where she boarded.
She’s familiar with the experience of not being believed by adults.
When she spoke out about what happened, she and was ignored by the school and the church.
“When I was at boarding school, it was harder to disclose because I was groomed into believing that no-one would believe me if I told anybody,” Lyndal recalls.
“You feel so trapped and unsure of yourself, and your self-confidence is so low that you start to believe the perpetrator.”
While Lyndal’s parents did believe her when she told them about the abuse, she has some thoughts on why other parents might not.
“I think half the time adults are in denial that it could happen to their child, especially if it happens in the family circle because more often than not they have known the adult for all their life and they go, ‘I don’t believe that person would do that’,” she says.
“Unfortunately in the family settings it’s harder for children to disclose.”
Dr Thompson says the fact that perpetrators are often a relative or friend could help explain why children are sometimes not believed.
“It’s really important to understand that through the grooming process, the perpetrator not only grooms the child but they groom the family and oftentimes the surrounding community as well,” she says.
Dr Thompson says perpetrators are typically charismatic, valued members of the community and families — making it even harder for some people to believe a child.
“It becomes almost impossible for anyone to comprehend that they are capable of such acts,” she says.
“And that’s certainly part of the grooming process and part of the reason why people find it difficult to believe when the child does disclose.”
Now a mother, Lyndal believes it’s important to educate her daughter about sex abuse.
“I’ve made her aware that her private parts are her private parts and no-one is allowed to touch them,” she says.
“And if she doesn’t want anybody to touch them, that she has to yell out and scream and kick and do everything to attract attention to other people, that she is being touched in an unwanted way.”
This news story is curated with information from ABC News.