• What should a parent who suspects that their child is a victim of sexual harassment do?


What should a parent who suspects that their child is a victim of sexual harassment do?



Piotr Gajdziński talks to Marcin Borowsiki, a psychologist and sexologist from the Medical Specialist Health Center in Tworki, about the fundamental importance of trust, harassment and it’s symptoms, and ways of protecting children from abuse.


What should a parent who suspects that their child is a victim of sexual harassment do? I ask about a situation in which the child has not yet presented this expressis verbis, but something – maybe intuition or changes in the child's behaviour – which leads parents to suspect that bad things are happening. 

Let's assume for a moment that we live in an ideal world in which the child has full and unlimited trust in the mother and father, has good contact with them and the child is not afraid to present them problems that affect him. This child knows that he/she can tell his/her parents or at least one of them everything, and his/her words will not be assessed or, worse, underestimated.  If this is the case, it greatly increases the likelihood that the child will confide in something they cannot cope with.  At the same time, it is necessary to add one very important point.  If the child has been harmed by a close person, for example someone in the family, or someone from the circle of closest friends of the family, then the child will have much greater reluctance to reveal the truth. 

But why?

Because the resistance results from the actions of the perpetrator, who always convinces the victim that what happened must remain a secret, because revealing it will do a lot of harm in the child's environment and, as a result, he will also suffer from it. This method of persuasion, strenuously repeated, usually goes into the psyche of the molested child, and it hits especially hard when the perpetrator of the harassment is a man from the immediate family: father, stepfather, uncle, grandfather. Because then he explains to the child that if he reveals the secret, mom will be sorry, dad or uncle may disappear or go to prison, and yet "we are all one family". Of course, the perpetrator also tries to persuade the child to keep the abuse a secret, but the effectiveness of his procedures is usually lower. Especially, and I repeat - when the child has confidence in their parents and the belief that they will be heard out.


And then his words will not be ignored.

It would be a shameful mistake to downplay a child’s story of sexual abuse. It is necessary to listen to the child very carefully, not to underestimate his words, not to look for an excuse for the actions of his potential abuser.  By no means, and you need to immediately seek professional help of a psychologist well prepared for this role.  Not just any random specialist from an advertisement, but a psychologist experienced in working with children and the issue of sexual harassment.  This is extremely important because the child must disclose this type of information in favourable circumstances and at an appropriate time. Experienced child psychologists say that this usually happens after about six sessions. If the child feels comfortable and safe, he/she will present his/her story on his/her own, without having to delve into the topic in-deep. However, the condition is to gain the child's trust.


This, especially in the case of a severely traumatized child, is probably not easy.

That is why I emphasize so strongly that parents must seek professional help.


Let's talk about a situation in which children have insufficient trust in their parents, and do not tell them anything, yet the parents still have some suspicions. On what grounds can you suspect that a child has experienced sexual harassment? 

Of course, this is a much more difficult situation, but it is not hopeless. Usually, we distinguish between Specific and non-specific symptoms.  The former undoubtedly indicate that the child has experienced sexual harassment, because these are physical symptoms: disruption of the hymen in girls, the presence of sperm in the vagina or anus, pregnancy and venereal disease.  On the other hand, non-specific symptoms are psychological in nature: suddenly the child begins to have behavioural problems: playing hooky, they become disobedient, can become aggressive and many other social issues. Of course, this type of behaviour can occur for completely different reasons, after all, not every child that plays truant has had the trauma of sexual harassment.


And the most characteristic symptoms of sexual harassment?

Research has been carried out on this subject and it shows that the first is post-traumatic stress disorder, or so-called trauma, and the second is the sexualisation of behaviour. The child begins to behave and say things that go beyond his developmental age and are related to sex.


This sexualization of behaviour is an attempt to subconsciously signal that harassment has occurred?

According to professional literature, a child who does not want to openly talk about harassment manifests this type of behaviour.  The kind of behaviour that goes beyond the developmental norm of the child who does not understand it, is a result of long-term or repeated experience of this type of violence,.


What could be the consequences of sexual harassment in adult life? 

There could be a number of symptoms that disrupt the victim's functioning. First, personality disorders.  Of course, this is not diagnosed with children, because their personality is still developing, but if this development is disturbed, the consequences will appear in adult life.  Substance dependence, self-aggressive behaviour, including suicide attempts and all mood symptoms, including depression. However, it is worth to mention the research conducted in 1993 by Kendall-Tackett, Williams, and Finkelhor. Their research included a group of abused children and a control group, and it turned out that the percentage of children with specific disorders was in between 20-30 percent.  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and excessive sexualisation of behaviour was found in almost half of the abused children. And one more conclusion from these studies – in case of two third of the victims, all these symptoms resolved spontaneously within twelve, eighteen months.


What is worse for a child is a situation in which the aggressor is someone from the closest family circle, or one in which the perpetrator of the harassment is a stranger?

It is hard to say. Intuition suggests that when the perpetrator of the abuse is the father of the child, then it leaves a more permanent mark on the child's psyche, because the father is, by definition - the person who is to ensure the child's safety. It is not uncommon for a child who has been sexually abused by their father to exhibit an ambivalent attitude towards their parent during questioning.  This is because the father may have been a sexual predator, and has harmed the child, but at the same time the child may have many good memories with him, which increases the likelihood that the abused child will resist revealing the secret.


Are there any tools that could protect children from abuse? 

Then you mean prevention - increasing the likelihood that children will protect themselves from potential abuse, to build a dam, so to speak. There is only one answer here and it is obvious – sex education.  Of course, they should take place at schools and be lectured by qualified specialists, but we know what it looks like in Poland right now. Let us have no illusions, that in the near future children living in Poland will be able to benefit from professional sex education. Instead, if a parent can do it himself by reaching, for example, for good books or professionally prepared materials that can be found on the Internet, then I strongly encourage to do so. I encourage, because it may be possible to protect at least a part of children from sexual harassment in this way. 


Interview by Piotr Gajdziński



from Latin "Experienced and effective in the profession"