The family is the first social environment that a child ever encounters. It is the family that tells a child what ‘normal’ is, and what ‘acceptable’ is. If ‘normal’ is tea from china cups and linen napkins, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is no TV after 5pm, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is sexual abuse, then the child accepts that, too. This is how sexual abuse survives and thrives in homes up and down the country. Children who are abused from the time they are tiny have no notion that what is happening to them is unacceptable and abnormal, in a wider societal view.
So when people – genuinely puzzled – ask an adult who was abused as a child ‘why did you never tell anyone?’ the answer has a few threads to it: First of all, the abused child has no idea that what is happening to them is not supposed to be happening to them. Abuse does not happen in isolation in a family. Families where children are sexually abused are toxic environments where there are many harmful practices; for example, neglect and abuse often go hand in hand. Put in its most simplistic terms, one parent will neglect the children while the other abuses them. Children in these families will often have no, or few friends, who are allowed to visit. There will be strict rules about having other kids home to visit as well – ‘drop-in’ visitors will not be encouraged and the child who ‘allows’ or ‘encourages’ such visits will be punished. Children who are being sexually abused will have most elements of their lives controlled and ‘managed’ by parents who need to keep the secrets of the home within the four walls of the house. So, with all the other controls exercised over the child, the abuse does not seem out of place (to the child); there is nothing remarkable about it, so they do not think to mention it.
Another reason children don’t disclose is because they don’t have the language, the vocabulary or the ability to disclose. Often, children are threatened with vague or real threats of what will befall them if they do discuss what goes on at home. These threats often include the child being told that the abuse is ‘love and no one else would understand’ or that the abuse is the child’s own fault and they will be punished by others if they tell. Shame is often used as way of keeping children quiet about the abuse they are suffering.
What happens to children within their families is ‘normal’ to them. As a society, we really need to stop allowing sexual abuse – and, indeed, any abuse – being any child’s ‘normal’.