This section of our "Resources" material is addressed to adults who suspect or have determined that a boy for whom they have a parental role has been sexually abused. I used the terms "parent" and "son" with the understanding that what follows below also applies to such long-term caregivers as grandparents or other relatives, and foster and adoptive parents. The aim here is to set down some ideas and guidelines providing a basic framework that you can use right now and refer back to later.
The fact that a boy has been sexually abused will very often come as a complete surprise to the adults in his life who genuine care about him. But there are a number of warning signs that develop over time and may give cause for concern. These include:
Some of these warning signs are clearly indicative of sexual abuse: a ten-year-old with an STD, for example, or semen stains on the backside of a boy’s underwear. But many other signs can prove to be nothing more than normal occurrences in childhood and adolescence, or can arise from other problems. For example, your son may suddenly begin to display anxiety about taking a shower because one day he thought he saw “a bug” in the drain; if you ask why he’s so hesitant, a not-unusual reply would be “I dunno,” meaning he doesn’t want to appear childish by disclosing how anxious he feels about this. A boy persistently reluctant to go to school may have problems with a bully or may be apprehensive because of an embarrassing setback, such as a failed tryout for a sports team. Or perhaps he just can’t see the front of the classroom and doesn’t know he needs glasses.
So how can one determine the truth? The answer is that it’s difficult, and that’s one reason why sexual abuse so often defies detection: most of the warning signs can arise from causes that are no cause for alarm, or if the issue is serious, it can spring from problems other than sexual abuse. But concern is especially warranted when a behavior or problem marks a sudden drastic change from your son’s usual routine or interests, and when it persists. It is entirely normal if your son is casual or modest when it comes to nakedness, for example. But if his behavior or attitude about this suddenly changes, and seems to be especially important to him, that’s at least worth noting.
It’s also worth watching for connections. Suppose, for example, your son begins to come home late with no satisfactory explanation, and when he returns he dashes upstairs, avoiding any greetings along the way, takes an prolonged shower, and then shuts himself up in his room. Then you note that this only happens on the third Thursday of the month…when his Boy Scout troop meets. This shows, at the very least, that something is wrong at Scouts, and that conclusion, in light of the combination of circumstances, and regardless of what the problem proves to be, is sufficient cause for concern.
There are some guidelines to bear in mind as you look into the matter and move toward the truth about what the problem is:
Overall, bear in mind that what your son needs most are people who are safe and reliable. Focus on your role as a parent, offering love, support, safe opportunities to talk, and your skills in maintaining the affairs of the family and a healthy environment at home. If there are issues getting in the way of that, they need to be addressed as an urgent priority. (Child protection authorities will insist on this.)
The more informed you are the better, but at the same time, recognize the boundary between your role as a parent and the professional role of your son’s counselor or therapist. The professional has the training and experience to guide your son’s recovery in a way and at a pace that’s right for him, and it’s important to avoid “triangulation,” a situation in which your son receives information on the same subject independently from two different sources – you and his counselor. If that information conflicts – and sooner or later it will – the resulting confusion can provoke fear and distrust in your son and undermine his confidence in the ability of adults to help him.
It is normal for a parent to encounter major difficulties in envisaging how to support and communicate with an abused boy. As your son makes progress in his recovery, you will be making progress with him as your experience increases and you develop a sense for what his particular needs are. His counselor or therapist will be an invaluable resource along the way. Here we offer some basic guidelines that you can read now and refer back to as needed. The points suggested here are in line with those advocated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2009), but it would be best to show these to your son’s counselor to make sure they agree with the path he or she considers to be best for your child.
The points raised above are based on what professional research, clinical experience in numerous fields (psychology, child development, the social sciences, education, neuroscience, and statistics), and the testimony of male survivors have taught us about childhood sexual abuse. Much work remains to be done, but the advances in our knowledge have practically reinvented how we view and respond to sexual abuse at every level, as compared to, say, 30 years ago. Public awareness is far higher, and many more survivors are seeking the help they need and deserve.
In the face of this overwhelming evidence, however, misconceptions and myths still find support and traditional views continue to cloud judgment and lead to false conclusions. At times the misdirection is deliberate, as evidenced time and again by the leaders and other representatives of institutions who argue against what they know to be the truth in a sexual abuse case, in order to protect the reputation and assets of their institution. In other cases the problem is that a disclosure of abuse challenges the heart-felt beliefs of well-intending people. Or a boy’s home situation may be so dysfunctional that it’s difficult for healthy thinking and behavior to prevail at any level. And yet, the truth remains.
You may have believed all your life, for example, that boys aren’t abused, or that if sexual impropriety has occurred, the boy is to blame. The truth is that at least one in six boys is sexually abused by the time he reaches the age of eighteen, and that sexual abuse is the work of someone far more powerful and knowledgeable, and almost always significantly older, than the victim.
Or you may believe that sexual abuse isn’t possible in your family or community, or that the leaders of your faith community, or any other institution with which you have a deep emotional, social, or spiritual connection, could never be involved in the sexual abuse of children. The truth is that over 90% of abused children are molested not by strangers, but by people in their families and communities whom they know and trust, and that institutions of every kind, no matter how respectable their public face may be, have repeated been found to include many sex offenders, not to mention others who enable their crimes by covering them up, protecting abusers, and refusing to cooperate fully with investigations. The truth is that no institution is safe for children simply because it claims to be so; it becomes safe when the community demands safety, insists on concrete proof of transparency and compliance with effective protocols, and shows willingness to reject that institution if appropriate standards are not met.
If your home life is beset by such issues as violence, neglect, or substance abuse, you may plead that the chaos is not your fault…and you may well be correct. But such a place cannot provide an abused child with the environment he needs in order to recover from sexual abuse. In fact, a dysfunctional home often plays a major role in rendering a child vulnerable to abuse. As one teenager told me, “I didn’t know the abuser’s lies would feel better than nothing.” There is often outrage when child protection authorities remove a boy from his home, but in many cases the true outrage is that this step wasn’t taken sooner.
This is offered not in judgment, but as a challenge. We all need to play our role in making the world a safer place for our children, but in many cases the need for change is more personal and more urgent. Anyone who is the parent or caregiver for a child needs to prioritize the welfare of that child above all else, even if that requires a major re-evaluation of life-long assumptions and deeply held convictions.
So it’s worth repeating: the truth remains the truth, however difficult it may be to accept it and act on it.
There are numerous worthwhile books available for the parents or guardians of young male survivors. Those below are some of the best, but do bear in mind that while books can provide ready reference and continuing guidance, they cannot replace professional counseling.
The Phoenix Foundation website frequently updates its content. If you are interested in joining our mailing list, please enter your email address and click “Subscribe.”
Our mailing list is confidential. We do not sell it or make it available to advertisers or any other third parties, and we do not use it to solicit contributions. You may unsubscribe at any time.