At my Catholic high school in Massachusetts, it was well known that a few of the clergy were molesting various boys. While several of my friends spoke about this informally, I said nothing to any adult. I assumed that since it was such common knowledge around the school, that people in authority accepted such behavior.
I’ve been thinking of my silence after reading about the accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and others. Many have wondered why so many teens and young adults who were sexually abused kept silent. After being educated by parents and others about the importance of telling a trusted adult if anyone touches you inappropriately, these victims knew what to do, but didn’t act.
This makes no sense to many but is understandable to me. In fact, I’m more surprised when someone dares to speak up about sexual assault than I am about the secrecy around this issue.
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I’ve also spent countless hours talking with hundreds of kids about why they never told anyone about their sexual abuse. While the dynamics of child sexual abuse are different in some ways from the current accusations, these insights from kids can help us understand this perplexing issue.
1. Trust. Most sexual assaults occur by someone trusted by the child. It makes no sense to a youngster why someone who cares about them would hurt them. There is a tremendous amount of confusion and uncertainty, as kids try to reconcile why someone who is good would do something that is bad.
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2. What is there about me? As kids try to come to some understanding of adults touching them sexually, they often will personalize the behavior. Adults will manipulate the trusting characteristic of kids, telling them that they are special and that the abuse is loving and kind, rather than hurtful and controlling. Older kids recognize this deception. Since kids are developmentally rather egocentric, many youths will blame themselves. They don’t feel special, but rather responsible for their abuse.
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3. Power. In relationships with their abuser, kids have little power. This is probably the most important dynamic responsible for nondisclosure of many young adults. It is a horrifying experience for something bad to happen to you, and be unable to tell anyone for fear that the consequences will be even worse.
For parents of kids and teens, here’s your homework. Talk about these horrific stories at the dinner tonight. Ask questions. Listen. Don’t criticize or judge, but rather try to understand. These open and frequent conversations may be the best way to keep your child safe.
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