Family therapist Phyllis Haugabook talks about the effects of sexual abuse on children
by Apollonia Jordan
Sexually abused children have to live with the pain and trauma of the abuse forever! With so many new cases of Bay Area police officers involved with the current underage sex scandal, it is important to educate the community on the effects sexual abuse has on the psyche of a minor. We need to protect our children from predators like these officers and any monster who believes it is OK to have sexual relations with a minor.
Phyllis has worked over 17 years dealing with minors who have been abused mentally, sexually and physically. She has worked with the families to help guide them on how to recover from sexual tragedies. Here is more of what family therapist Phyllis Haugabook has to say about the effects sexual abuse has on children.
Apollonia: Describe what is going through the mind of a sexually abused child after they have come out about the abuse.
Phyllis: The child often thinks about the consequences of telling the truth. They say to themselves, if I come out what is going to happen to me? They believe the person is going to hurt them more and that this cycle of abuse will never end.
Apollonia: I can just imagine how the young women surrounded by this Bay Area police sex scandal, Celeste Guap feels. They have been portraying her as a liar on local news. As children, we are taught to respect and honor police officers. Is it safe to say that the sexually abused minor feels as if they have to honor this code of silence, out of fear of retaliation or to protect the abuser?
Phyllis: Initially when a person comes out and says that they were molested, this is a break-through and the beginning of their healing process. They let this secret out and often feel a sense of relief. Children who have been molested often will hold the secret in for years before they tell the truth.
Often, this looks as if the person is trying to protect the perpetrator, however, that is not the case. If the perpetrator is someone who is close to them – a neighbor, a family member or the local police officer – they have access to this young person.
Initially when a person comes out and says that they were molested, this is a break-through and the beginning of their healing process.
I don’t believe any victim wants to protect their abuser! I believe the child is both afraid and intimidated. Children know whether or not their parents are going to believe them. They know if they have a good relationship with their parents.
This is why I encourage parents to have a positive relationship with their child, so that the child will be open and want to express their feelings to their parents. Sexually abused children confide in people they trust. A sexually abused teen may confide in his teacher about the sexual abuse.
I don’t believe any victim wants to protect their abuser! I believe the child is both afraid and intimidated.
Parents also have to notice the behavioral changes in their child, so that they can pick up signals of sexual abuse. For example, if a normally happy and successful child goes from getting good grades to failing all their classes and being depressed or withdrawn, that is a drastic personality change.
Parents also have to notice the behavioral changes in their child, so that they can pick up signals of sexual abuse.
These are signs that parents may not connect to abuse. You have to look deeply for the signs as a parent, teacher or anyone involved in the lives and development of children. You have to pick up on non-verbal signals of abuse. The abused child has to trust the process; if they don’t trust the fact that this abuse will stop, the child will never talk.
Apollonia: What are some non-verbal signs of abuse that are often overlooked?
Phyllis: For some young children, one of the non-verbal signs of sexual abuse is bed-wetting. Some children may have never wet the bed or have gone through the bed-wetting process and outgrown it. When the sexual abuse begins to happen, the child may start wetting the bed. It’s normal for children to have accidents of course, but often sexually abused children have nightmares that accompany the bed-wetting.
Other signs include the child often being unable to sleep. The child may not want to go outside, around strangers or certain people. A sexually abused child often becomes isolated or depressed.
Living in today’s fast paced society, many times these signals are overlooked. Parents or teachers may not notice this behavior at first, or they may brush it off as being a temporary phase the child is going through. However, if these changes are long lasting, it is important to get the child the help they need.
For some young children, one of the non-verbal signs of sexual abuse is bed-wetting. Other signs include the child often being unable to sleep. A sexually abused child often becomes isolated or depressed.
Some of the sexually abused children I have worked with in my practice have had so much trouble sleeping at night, to the point they had bags under their eyes. Now, what 7- or 8-year-old do you know have bags under their eyes?
A lot of children have a hard time sleeping because they may have memories or flashbacks of the abuse they endured. They may also be fearful that the person may come into their bedroom. If the perpetrator is living with them, then they can come to their bedroom because they have easy access to them. Another sign is the child crying for no reason. Sexual abuse will also cause a child’s social skills and emotional state to dwindle.
Some children will become suicidal and want to end their life so the pain will stop. I have seen this a lot in my practice where children will cut themselves to escape the pain.
Apollonia: How do we as parents protect our children from predators like the police, who wear a mask of good when they are evil? How do we protect our children?
Phyllis: We can’t have this picture in our minds of what a perpetrator should look like or what age they should be; they come in all ages, shapes, sizes and some come in uniform. There is often this stereotypical picture of this dark person or this creepy person who is doing these sorts of crimes, but this is not the case.
It is not always the creepy person; it’s people who are professionals … teachers … anyone. People often become shocked when a teacher or police officer sexually assaults because they feel that these people should know better.
There is often this stereotypical picture of this dark person or this creepy person who is doing these sorts of crimes, but this is not the case.
But the reality we have to face is that many people in these positions of power will abuse their power. Perpetrators like this feel that they are untouchable and they use the trust that they have built within the community to manipulate. It’s child abuse, its abuse of power and abuse of the community.
Apollonia: What advice would you give these young people who may be being abused reading this and what advice would you give to parents who may have a child who is going through this situation?
Phyllis: It is so important for the parent to believe their child and not to shame them and make them feel like they are the guilty one. Youth who have experienced this abuse need to know that there is counseling and services available to them.
They often feel broken from the inside and they blame themselves for the abuse. Parents also need to understand that it is not the child’s fault. These victims need to know that they have a support system who will help them heal and overcome this tragedy.
Bay Area journalist and longtime Bay View writer Apollonia Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.