Mistaken Beliefs that Block Awareness

What stops us from seeing abuse?

It’s very disturbing to imagine that someone you know could be sexually harming a child. Without certain proof of abuse, it’s so much easier to dismiss such thoughts or to think you’re overreacting. You may also be worried about the possible consequences of taking action, especially if the concern involves someone you or your family depends on for financial, emotional or social support. Looking back, many people wonder how they missed the signs that someone close to them was abusing a child. But when something is so difficult to think about, it’s only human to find ways of denying it to ourselves.

Here are some common thoughts that can block our awareness of abuse:

  • "He was the perfect father, he was involved with the children, he played with them, and when our daughter was ill he looked after her so well."
  • "I thought they were just fooling around. They couldn't be abusing anyone at 14."
  • "My brother would never do that to a child. He has a wife and children."
  • "She was their mother. How could she be abusing them?"
  • "My friend has had a longstanding relationship with a woman. So how can he be interested in boys?"
  • "He told me about his past right from the start. He wouldn't have done that if he hadn't changed and I'd know if he'd done it again.

Mistaken beliefs can block our awareness and reinforce denial

It's much harder to recognize that a child could be in danger when we hold mistaken beliefs about child sexual abuse. Inaccurate assumptions also make it easier for us to deny to ourselves the painful possibility that a child could be at risk.

If you're concerned about the risk that a child could be in danger, here are some important facts to know and some steps you can take based on accurate information.

Don't assume you would know if something was wrong

Some adults, especially parents, feel sure they would recognize that something wasn't right. They find it hard to believe that a child has been abused because they never saw anything that raised their suspicions. But for abuse to occur, people who sexually abuse children, must keep the abuse a secret and find ways to hide it. 

Knowing what to look for is key. Learning the warning signs of child sexual abuse will help alert you to situations and behaviors that can indicate that a child is being harmed, or is at risk of being harmed.

Most children never tell anyone about their abuse

Don’t assume your child will disclose that they are being abused. The pressures on children to keep silent are powerful. They may have been threatened that if they tell, they or someone they love will be harmed. They may think that they'll be blamed for the abuse, or that no one will believe them. Or they may remain silent because they want to protect the non-abusive parent from becoming upset or angry. Most children never tell an adult that they are being sexually abused. Others will tell but later take back the disclosure. Still others may disclose the abuse only years after it occurred.

Realize that sometimes others may doubt or dismiss your concerns

It is very hard for anyone to face the possibility that someone they care about is being abused or is abusing. When you raise your concerns with others, they may respond by denying what you have to say, telling you you're overreacting, or getting angry at you just for bringing up the possibility.

Keep in mind that how people respond can change with time. Some people may need time to digest what you've told them before they're ready to really consider it and to take steps. Raising concerns about child sexual abuse usually requires more than one discussion. Stop It Now’s Let’s Talk is a free, downloadable booklet that gives guidance and advice on how to talk about child sexual abuse with other adults.

Trust yourself and your instincts

If you suspect that a child is being sexually abused, continue to trust yourself and your instincts. You may be picking up on things that others have not detected. Try to identify what you are seeing and hearing that makes you uneasy. It may be helpful to write your observations in a journal so that you can refer to them when speaking to others. By learning the warning signs,you’ll know what behaviors and situations to be alert to.

Get help from professionals

When everyone around you is dismissing what you have to say or getting angry with you for raising the possibility of abuse, you will most likely feel alone and discouraged. In these circumstances, it’s easy to doubt one’s self, or to think that there’s nothing you can do on your own to protect a child. See our resource list for help in finding a therapist who is knowledgeable about sexual behaviors.  You can also call the Stop It Now! Helpline (1.888.PREVENT) to speak with knowledgeable staff to better understand what the behaviors you’re observing mean, and if they could be indications of child sexual abuse. If there are signs of abuse, you can also talk through options you have to get the child protection.