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The Monster Within: Combating Inappropriate Sexual Behavior by a Family Member

Posted under Sex Crimes on Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Among the many bad things that occur on our society, nothing is as disgraceful and heartbreaking as the sexual abuse of a child by a family member. As caring adults, whether we are friends, neighbors, educators or others, when we see signs of inappropriate sexual behavior toward children, we may say something or nothing. We may act or fail to step in. In all good conscience, we should do something. Inside the family, it’s even more difficult. What happens when you discover the monster within your own family? How can you combat inappropriate sexual behavior toward your child by your family member?

Avoid Denial

If you see incontrovertible evidence of sexual behavior toward your child – you witness a family member touching your child in an inappropriate way, engaging in deep mouth kisses, demanding the child touch the adult’s genitals, etc. – the worst thing you could do is to deny there’s a problem. Don’t assume there must be some mistake, that you are misreading the situation. You aren’t. If you see this behavior, it’s already progressed beyond anything remotely resembling innocence. It must be stopped and stopped now.

Gently Remove the Child

Without causing undue attention or making the child feel in any way guilty, gently remove the child from the environment. This could be an invitation to go to the store or the movies or a play date with friends. Use the opportunity to divert the child’s attention, and remove him or her from the presence of the adult or older child family member. If you are the parent, and the offending family member is another of your children, you have the upper hand. If you are one of the parents and your spouse is the offender, you may have a more difficult time extricating your child from the situation. Use your best judgment, but get the child out of the circumstance as quickly and safely as possible.

Determine the Facts

Children are hyper alert to any signs of disapproval, particularly if they have been warned or threatened by the family member who has displayed inappropriate sexual behavior toward them. It’s important – crucial, actually – that you use caution when discussing what you have witnessed or learned about what’s been going on. Still, you need to determine the facts.

You will need to tailor your words to be age-appropriate, depending on the age of the child at the time. Children younger than four generally do not understand that it is wrong for an adult to behave toward them in a sexual manner. Children five and older do have some awareness that something about this behavior doesn’t feel right.

Questioning them too directly or indicating anger, shame, or hysteria will only make them afraid to talk about the situation. They will feel like you don’t love them and they’ve done something wrong. They will also likely feel shame, embarrassment and guilt over the behavior.

So, while you do need to determine the facts – how long this behavior has been going on, exactly what kind of behavior it is, etc. – you have to do so very carefully. First, however, you need to know what constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior.

Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

There are two types of inappropriate sexual behavior: touching and non-touching. Both are extremely damaging to a child.

• Inappropriate touching behavior – this includes touching a child’s genitals (penis, testicles, vulva, breasts or anus) for sexual pleasure or any other unnecessary purpose; making a child touch another person’s genitals, playing sexual (pants-down) games; putting objects or body parts (fingers, tongue, or penis) inside the vulva or vagina, mouth, or anus of a child for sexual pleasure or any other unnecessary purpose.

• Inappropriate non-touching behavior – Among the examples are showing a child pornography; exposing genitals to a child; asking children to interact with each other in a sexual manner; enticing a child online for sexual purposes; photographing a child in sexual poses; exposing a child to sexual activity in person or through technology; watching a child use the bathroom or undress – often without the child’s knowledge – often called “Peeping Tom” or “voyeurism.”

Signs of Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

Due to the secretive nature of the behavior, it is very possible, even likely, that you may not witness the actual behavior. There are signs that you should be on the lookout for. The presence of a single sign doesn’t necessarily mean your child was abused, but if you notice several of them, it means the situation warrants your attention and action.

• Sudden or unexplained personality changes – your child may seem moody, depressed, clingy, withdrawn, angry, not really there (checked-out), or has significant eating habit changes

• Nightmares or inability to sleep, and extreme fear that seems without basis

• Resisting normal bathing routine or removing clothes even in appropriate situations

• Reverting to more child-like behavior, such as an older child resorting to thumb-sucking or wetting the bed

• Using adult or new words for parts of the body

• Becomes fearful of new places or of being alone with an adult or other sibling for reasons unknown

• Dreams, drawings, games, or writing about images that are frightening and/or sexual

• Stomach aches or other illness that appears to be without reason

• Engaging in adult-like, sexual activities with other children, toys or objects

• Physical symptoms such as unexplained bruises, pain or soreness around the mouth or genitals, sexually-transmitted
disease, or pregnancy

• Increasing secretiveness around the phone, cell phone or Internet

• Leaving clues that seem designed to provoke a discussion about issues that are sexual in nature

• Developing a special relationship with older persons that may include unexplained gifts, money or privileges

• Engaging in behavior that causes intentional harm to himself or herself – including burning, cutting, drug and/or alcohol use, promiscuity and running away

Take Steps to Eliminate Sexual Victimization of the Child

Once you know your child has been sexually victimized by a family member, you need to take the necessary steps to ensure no further sexual behavior takes place. How you accomplish this depends partly on family circumstances and partly on your own willingness or ability to get it done.

Asking the adult offender (your spouse or older child) to leave the home temporarily may be one option, but exercise caution. This may spark violence on the part of the person being asked to leave. Since most perpetrators of sexual abuse of children in the family are men or boys who are older and more powerful, you may fear attempting this on your own.

You should contact a child abuse hotline to talk about your situation and get appropriate referrals for help. Call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD, or Child Abuse National Hotline at 1-800-25ABUSE. A statewide listing is located at: http://www.findcounseling.com/journal/child-abuse/child-abuse-hotlines-phone-numbers.html. You can also contact local law enforcement if you are afraid for your safety – and the safety of your child. Remember that sexual abuse of a child is illegal in all states.

Once you report the sexual abuse (officially, and not just inquiring about what to do when calling a hotline), the process is set in motion. In many cases, this results in a forensic investigation, medical exam, intervention by the courts, removal of the child or offender from the home, treatment for the child, and treatment for the offender and other family members.

Seek Treatment for the Child

Treating the sexually abused child is a complex process that involves a multidisciplinary team of professionals. In the treatment phase of intrafamilial child sexual abuse, this team usually includes Child Protective Services (CPS) and/or foster care workers, professionals treating the child and family members, professionals providing other services (such as parenting guidance), someone from the prosecutor’s office, and various consultants.

The key issues to be considered at the intervention stage are removal of the child and/or offender from the family, the roles of the juvenile and criminal courts, family treatment plan, visitation, and reunification of the family.

As for specific treatment for the child, there is no single treatment method that is appropriate for every child. One that has been widely used for many years and is effective in treating children who have been sexually abused is Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has recognized TF-CBT as a model program and encourages its broader use by practitioners. Another treatment method, Child-Centered Therapy, has also proven effective.

According to the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS), elements of effective therapy include the following:

• Education – The therapist shares information with the child and the non-abusing parent about common symptoms and reactions resulting from sexual abuse. This helps the child realize that his or her feelings and reactions are normal and that treatment can help. If one of the parents is the abuser, the whole family structure may have changed, and the remaining parent needs support to be more consistent and keep family life as secure as possible.

• Identifying feelings and learning techniques – The therapist helps the child identify feelings such as anxiety, jumpiness and sadness and gives the child techniques to soothe himself or herself. This is important so that the child doesn’t begin to withdraw from life in order to avoid having such feelings.

• Analyzing connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviors – Children who have been abused sexually often feel worthless, blame themselves for the abuse. The therapist helps the child examine his or her thoughts about everyday events first, and then moves on to explore thoughts, feelings and beliefs about the abuse.

• Overcoming learned fears – This involves the therapist helping the child to unlearn the connection they’ve made between the abuse, negative feelings, and trauma reminders – things and events associated with the abuse.

• Trauma narrative – In this part of the therapy, the therapist helps the child to tell a coherent account of what happened, how it felt, and what it meant. The therapist then works to help the child identify and correct their distorted ideas and beliefs about the abuse.

Clinicians who can provide effective treatment for the child who has been sexually abused include psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers. They should all be licensed and have a lot of experience in treating child trauma, including sexual abuse.
Treatment may include individual and/or group therapy, as well as family therapy. Treatment of young children generally requires strong parental involvement, and family therapy is particularly recommended. Adolescents, being more independent, may benefit more from group therapy as well as individual therapy. Again, major factors affecting the type of therapy recommended include the severity and type of the sexual act, frequency, age at which it first occurred, and the child’s family circumstances.

Children can Overcome Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

With treatment, children will be able to overcome inappropriate sexual behavior by a family member. But they cannot do it on their own. They need professional assistance to be able to sort out their feelings of guilt, shame, anger, embarrassment, and fear. They need to be reassured that they are not to blame for the sexual behavior. It was not their fault. They also need to be protected from any further victimization by a family member. It is the responsibility of the parent to ensure that the child receives the help he or she needs, and to do whatever it takes to remedy the situation in the family.

Do you need to sever the relationship with the perpetrator? Will family counseling be effective? Can the family be reunited? Will things ever go back to normal? Will your child grow up to have a healthy and happy life? There are no easy answers to these questions. But you can be assured that if you act now to stop inappropriate sexual behavior by a family member toward your child and seek treatment to help everyone overcome it, you have a much greater likelihood of a successful outcome.
Children who have been the victims of inappropriate sexual behavior have every right to become whole again, to have all their hopes and dreams realized. You can help make that a reality. Do not deny what happened. Do not make excuses for your family member. Do seek help. Do end the sexual behavior. Do get help for your child and other family members. Do whatever it takes to protect your child.

Resources

For more information on child sexual abuse, check out the following resources:

Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: Facts About Sexual Abuse and How to Prevent It – publication from Stop It Now

Child Abuse: A Painful Secret – publication that examines the causes and prevention of child abuse, from NebGuide, University of Nebraska Lincoln

• Child Sexual Abuse: Facts for Families – publication from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (downloadable in PDF format from the site)

Sexual Abuse of Children – online version (Child Trauma Academy) of a chapter published in Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment, 2001

Treatment of Child Sexual Abuse – from Child Welfare Information Gateway

Questions and Answers About Child Sexual Abuse Treatment – from the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS)