When a Child Speaks

Teddy Bears.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Teddy Bears. Photo by Callen Harty.

Imagine if you will–if you can–that you’re a young girl or boy, and that you just got beat up very badly after school. You have a black eye and your face is covered with blood. You get home and your parents greet you as they do every day and ask you how your day went. You wonder why they don’t ask about the blood and the black eye, so you look into the mirror and sure enough, you are bruised and bloodied almost beyond recognition. “Somebody hurt me,” you say, and there is little or no reaction. You start to cry and your parents don’t seem to notice.

“I’m sure it was nothing,” you hear, “Get over it. You’re a big child now.”

“But I’m bleeding,” you answer.

And one of your parents says, “I don’t see any blood or anything wrong. Maybe a little speck. I’m sure you’re just imagining it. Maybe somebody bumped you and you’re blowing it all out of proportion.”

At that point, what do you do? Most likely shut up and figure you will never ask them for help again. You look in the mirror and you start to doubt if that really is blood on your face. Perhaps it’s just the way the light and shadows are playing on your face. And you think this even though the pain you feel is definitely real. And then at some point in the near future you once again face the one who hurt you and you know there is nothing you can do to stop them and that nobody is going to help you out. You submit, or black out, or just accept your fate and the pain of your life as the way it is.

This is what if feels like to be sexually abused as a child and not believed. You first of all think that those who love and care for you should see your pain without you having to tell them. But when they don’t and you take that chance of telling them someone hurt you and they don’t believe you or they brush it off as insignificant or a misunderstanding it is like getting hurt all over again, like a huge punch in the gut. These are the people who are supposed to protect you and they won’t even acknowledge that you’re hurt. You look in the mirror and you question your own feelings and your own knowledge of what happened to you.

This happens to children all the time. They show signs of sexual abuse–they are suddenly doing poorly in school, they are depressed or suicidal, they become withdrawn–but the signs are not acknowledged, either because they are not understood or those noticing them don’t want to believe that the signs indicate something may have really happened. It’s easier to blame it on growing up or teen angst.

Parents and others in positions of power and protection often do not want to believe the child. It is just too hard to think about, and so they don’t acknowledge it at all, or they give the abuser the benefit of the doubt–even though statistically somewhat more than 95% of children disclosing sexual abuse are telling the truth. Most sources I found in a quick search online put the figure at 96%. Perhaps it is easier to believe your child is lying or more likely misinterpreting something than it is to believe that their uncle, father, neighbor, minister, or friend could violate trust in such a horrifying way. Most abused children are abused by someone they know and trust, not strangers with candy. And who wants to believe that someone you trusted your child with could be capable of such a thing? It’s easy to believe that a stranger in a van might harm your child, but not so easy to accept that someone close to them might do so.

Child abuse victims go through this all of the time–believed by no one or one trusted person, but questioned and doubted by relatives, therapists, social workers, court personnel, guardian ad litum, ad infinitum. Of course, perpetrators tend to be manipulative and appear on the surface to be likeable, loving people. They can often convince others that the child misunderstood a loving and innocent gesture as something else, even when there is plenty of other evidence that points to the possibility that something inappropriate may have happened.

But what is so hard to believe from the child? Approximately one in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused, so it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. The reality is that there is a 25% likelihood that a girl and a nearly 17% chance that a boy will become the victim of childhood sex abuse. If s/he tells you it happened there is a 96% likelihood that it did. Why would you not take the safest route and presume that the child is telling the truth, or at the very least support him or her in the revelation? While it could be a lie or a false memory the great likelihood is that it is not and if that child is left alone with the person they say abused them and s/he was telling the truth not only will they likely be harmed again by the one who already abused trust, there will also be incredible emotional harm from not being believed. Not only is the trust between the child and perpetrator forever damaged but so is the trust between the child and the person they entrusted with their story.

It is okay for an uncertain parent to ask for help with such things. Consult with professionals, ask what you should do if a child shares such a secret. But don’t dismiss it. Trust the child. Are they old enough to have the kind of knowledge they show in talking about the abuse? If not, ask yourself how they know about these things. Could they have an ulterior motive for making up such a thing? While it’s possible remember that it is not very likely and also question what other horrible thing might make them conjure up such a lie. If they are that angry or hateful about the person they’re telling you about then even if it is not true there are likely some other big issues that need to be dealt with promptly.

The point is a child talking about such things must be trusted, respected, and supported as much as possible. The situation needs to be investigated and the child needs to know they are not alone. It is possible that they are lying, that they misunderstood something, or that there is another explanation, but not likely. As much as you may not want to believe that someone you trust could hurt your child in such a way you are safer believing the child than dismissing their story.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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