Helping to heal

Together, parents and teachers can help children after incidents of sexual abuse

By Richard Woodbury

Research shows as many as one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before they reach the age of 18. Sadly, nine out of 10 cases aren’t reported to the authorities.

In Nova Scotia, abuse and personal safety is addressed in the health education curriculum beginning in Grade Primary and until Grade 9. 

Schools also use an interactive curriculum resource developed by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, which is designed to reduce child/youth victimization and sexual exploitation by teaching and practising effective personal safety strategies. “It aims to provide children and youth with the tools to help them respond to dangerous or threatening situations,” says Michelle Lucas, a spokesperson with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, in an email.

Vicky Wolfe, the psychology professional practice chief at the IWK Health Centre, says classroom curriculum is important because it makes some kids realize things that have happened to them were, in fact, incidents of sexual abuse. Parents and caregivers should also talk to their kids about what sexual abuse is. 

This is especially relevant because kids who have open communication with their parents about sensitive topics (such as sex and sexual abuse) are more likely to disclose if something has happened to them. Not only does early disclosure prevent the incident from happening again, it has another benefit. “For kids who disclose right away, the impact is much less than kids who hold it in and go years and years without disclosing,” Wolfe says.

Parents would be wise to do some research about the topic before talking to their kids about it. Wolfe recommends parents visit the website of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, an American coalition of frontline providers, researchers, and families focused on childhood trauma. The site ( has a free document called Caring for Kids: What Parents Need to Know about Sexual Abuse, which is helpful.

One of the most distressing things about child sexual abuse is that all children are vulnerable. According to the NCTSN, sexual abuse is more common among children with emotional, developmental, or physical challenges. It says the most common perpetrators are male and are “known and trusted by the children they victimize.” They are usually family members, friends of the family, neighbours, babysitters, or older peers.

Child sexual abuse is defined as “any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer,” says NCTSN. “Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors. Touching behaviors may involve touching of the vagina, penis, breasts or buttocks, oral-genital contact, or sexual intercourse. Non-touching behaviors can include voyeurism (trying to look at a child’s naked body), exhibitionism, or exposing the child to pornography.”

Besides talking to their kids about sexual abuse, it’s also important for parents and caregivers to pay attention to the warning signs. For school-aged kids, the biggest warning sign is a change in behaviour that can’t be easily explained. This could mean children suddenly want to sleep with their parents, they might seem standoffish, they are having more nightmares, don’t want to be left alone with a particular person, or are experiencing anxiety or depression. Unusual sexual behaviour is another warning sign and may include inappropriate touching of others or themselves, and an understanding of sexual knowledge and language that is inappropriate for the child’s age.

If a parent or caregiver suspects something is wrong, they should talk to the child at a time that is comfortable for the child and free of other distractions. Wolfe says the parent could preface the discussion by saying they’ve noticed the child has been acting different lately and they are worried something is on the child’s mind or something has happened to them, while adding the parent might be able to help with this. 

“They want to be as general as possible so they’re not leading the discussion and let the child come forward with their own information,” says Wolfe. Parents should ask open-ended questions, as opposed to closed-ended ones.

If the child does make a disclosure of sexual abuse, it is crucial the parent comfort the child, tell them they did the right thing, tell them nobody is going to think what happened was their fault, and they are brave for disclosing it. Parents should also mention that by coming forward, “they are also probably protecting other children from that happening to them,” says Wolfe.

To notify the authorities, people should contact the Department of Community Services (DCS). Even in a situation where a person isn’t 100 per cent sure an incident has occurred, call DCS to explain the concern. From there, DCS will assess the situation and may potentially interview the child and caregiver. DCS and the police conduct investigations together to reduce overlap and simplify the process.

In about 40 per cent of cases, kids will be fine with support from their family and won’t need counselling.

 “In the short term, it’s not unusual for a child to develop some post-traumatic stress reactions that will respond to treatment,” says NCTSN. “Others—particularly those who have suffered multiple traumas and received little parental support—may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.”

How well a child recovers depends on multiple factors. “One of the most important factors is having a supportive caregiver,” says Christina Shaffer, the project coordinator for the Child Protection Team at the IWK Health Centre. Not only must the caregiver believe the child and support them, they must be willing to advocate for the child.

For some parents, there is some uncertainty as to whether the child should participate in the legal process. Wolfe is all for it. “The kids have an opportunity to have some empowerment and to ensure their disclosure leads to some protection of other kids and themselves,” she says.   

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