Of all the repercussions of the Penn State child abuse scandal, the most devastating are the ones we know so little about. What happened to the eight — or more — abused boys?
It seems that at least one is now pursing a civil lawsuit, according to ABC News. Even the Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, has said he expects more may come forward.
Their emergence in the public eye raises a broader question: What happens to any child who is sexually abused?
Jennifer Marsh is an Affiliate Services Director at The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an organization devoted to supporting victims of sexual abuse.
She said it’s important for the adults around a victim to know the victim can recover. I asked her to explain that process and the role of a parent or caregiver in identifying, accepting and working through the consequences.
Below is our Q&A:
Q. What happens psychologically to a child when he or she is abused this way?
Marsh: Effects of child sexual abuse can vary drastically from child to child based on the circumstances surrounding the abuse. Factors like the age at the time of abuse, duration of abuse and support received from friends and family play a big part in the recovery process.
Some effects that frequently occur in children who are sexually abused include the following: Noticeable changes in behavior, for example, an outgoing child who starts withdrawing from friends or family; inappropriate sexual knowledge or behavior; changes in sleeping and eating habits; school problems (absences, drop in grades); poor hygiene; regressive behaviors; signs of anxiety; signs of feeling guilty or low self-esteem/putting themselves down.
A child may exhibit some, or all, of these signs. If you suspect that something is going on with your child, trust your instincts. In some instances, perpetrators may threaten the child or convince him/her that the abuse is their fault.
If you feel like your child is keeping a secret, assure them that you will always love them and that you will believe them no matter what.
Q: What happens to a victim’s idea of trust?
Marsh: When a child is sexually abused they have often been groomed by the perpetrator to accept the behavior as normal, or “their secret,” or even convinced the child that this is something that the child wanted or asked for.
As a child grows older and realizes that what happened to them is not okay, they may go back and forth between finding it very difficult to trust others or being too trusting.
Q: How can a parent help them recover?
Marsh: Every day on the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline we talk to survivors, young and old, who tell us that they were not believed when they first disclosed the abuse to their parents. They talk about how it took years to reach out for help again and that their relationship with their parents was never the same.
If your child tells you, either explicitly or through subtle signs, that something is happening, please believe them. It can be difficult — parents may not want to think that someone has harmed their child or they may not want to believe that someone they trusted did something so unconscionable.
Keep in mind that perpetrators are often personable, outgoing and respected members of their communities. They know how to manipulate not only their victims but those who control access to their victims.
After your child discloses the abuse let them know that not only do you believe them but tell him/her that what happened is not their fault and that you will always love them. These simple words can prevent years of self-blame, low self-esteem and other long-term effects of sexual abuse.
Also, remember that you and your family are not going through this alone. The National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE) can connect you to long-term support and resources that can help guide you through the recovery process.
And most importantly, always remember that sexual abuse is something that is done to you and not something that has to define who you become.