As much as we want to, we can’t physically be with our children 24/7 to protect them. But what we can do is to teach them to speak up, and listen to them when they do.
Trigger warning: This article discusses the topic of child abuse through a number of personal experiences which some may find distressing.
The recent child abuse cases shook the nation. Our hearts go out to the affected families and especially the young victims, all of whom are too young to comprehend what had happened to them. What adds insult to injury is the fact that the abusers are familiar adults, people whom the parents place their trust in.
Parents of young children, like myself, are particularly affected. Not only do the victims remind us of our little ones, the incidents also serve as an ominous reminder.
It could happen to any of our children.
The troubling question: “How long has it been happening to my child?”
This is perhaps one of the most distressing questions that affected families have to ponder on. It pains every parent to know that their child may have been subjected to harm for a prolonged period of time without their knowledge.
Seeking answers, parents jog their memories trying to recall if there were any red flags in the past. Were there bruises? Did they display discomfort? Have they shown their distress?
If there were red flags, parents tend to blame themselves for not realising these earlier. But in the instances when they couldn’t recall any, parents ask: “Why didn’t my child tell me?”
My own brush with (alleged) abuse
When I was five years old, my teacher slapped me in front of the whole class. It wasn’t the type of slap that would leave a burning red mark. Nevertheless, it was forceful enough to turn my face; and it left me burning red with embarrassment.
No, I never told my parents about it. For some reason, the five year-old me was afraid that my folks would dismiss it as an exaggeration and punish me for it. Or, as I thought back then, it could be worse. They may even tell said teacher about my accusations, and I’d have to face her wrath.
That was then, but what about now?
What happened to me happened over 20 years ago. Perhaps things have changed; parents and educators are now highly aware of what’s acceptable and what’s not, after all. However, two incidents within my social circle seem to point towards the opposite.
One of my relatives’ children informed his mother that he had been “pinched” by a caretaker in preschool for not finishing his snack. His mother promptly dismissed it as a childish exaggeration as there were no visible bruises. “It could have been a friendly pinch,” she said.
There’s also an acquaintance of mine whose child said she was “bullied” in school. She reported that her peers pulled her hair, called her names, and one of them even bit her. However, the child’s teacher said no such thing happened despite there being bite marks.
The red flags that parents should look out for
1. Listen first
When a child comes home with upsetting news of being harmed or bullied, it’s always important to listen first. Trauma Informed Core Confident coach Sophie Leung always stresses the importance of creating “a safe and non-judgmental space for children to fully express themselves and seek emotional support” from their parents.
2. Look out for bruises or marks
After that, look out for obvious physical red flags like bruises or marks, particularly in unusual and covered areas of your child’s body. If your child is able to communicate verbally, Trauma Recovery Coach trainee Ava Gao suggests checking with them if they’re experiencing any discomfort on certain body parts.
3. Sudden changes in behaviour or mood
Another key red flag to look out for is sudden behavioural, mood, or personality changes in your child. Sophie shares that this can manifest in the form of withdrawal or regression in development, aggression, or fearfulness. Your child may demonstrate fear or avoidance towards a specific person, or a specific place (where the abuse or bullying may have taken place). “On top of these, the child may even display knowledge of abusive behaviour or inappropriate language,” Sophie elaborated.
4. Clarify with secondary caregivers
Note the communication style of the caregiver, be it your helper or educator, when you’re checking in with them about your child’s wellbeing. Ava points out, “Unclear communication from caregivers when you reach out for clarification could be a red flag too.”
What if a child is unable to communicate verbally?
While some older children are able to communicate their experiences clearly, this may not be the case for very young or non-verbal children. Sophie and Ava both give their recommendations on how parents can teach their children to speak up in other ways.
Firstly, as Sophie mentioned earlier, creating a safe space for children to share their thoughts and feelings is essential. “This will help you build a loving, trusting, and open relationship with your child to share anything that is going on with them,” she says. Ava, who is also a Motherhood and Parenting coach, echoes this as well. “This allows our child to be so secure in our love that they know that they can trust in us, seek guidance, and co-create solutions together when bad things happen to them in school or in life,” she explains.
Sophie recommends using age-appropriate language to explain concepts of abuse, bullying, and personal boundaries to young children. “In my practice, I connect with my younger clients through stories and visual aids as well. Visual aids can include books, videos, or even drawings. Llama Llama and the Bully Goat by Anna Dewdney and Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean by Jane Lynch are some great children’s books that talk specifically about bullying. In fact, traditional tales like Three Little Pigs can also be used as an example,” she says.
Ava suggests teaching body ownership, body boundaries, and consent at an early age. “I recommend Rolypoly Family’s Body Smarts programme, which teaches body ownership and boundaries through age-appropriate movement exercises, games, and songs. It’s also important to teach children the right words of our body parts, including our private parts,” she says. Children should know the areas of their bodies that are ‘off limits’ so they can communicate what happened clearly, and seek appropriate support to process and heal.
Aside from that, Ava also talks about the importance of “being present” when children try to communicate their feelings with us. “Whether your child is communicating through body language, gestures, or sound, be present. This allows them to feel that their experiences matter, and that their range of feelings are welcomed,” Ava explains.
When a child speaks up, listen.
Don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions on whether your child is telling the truth or not. Both Sophie and Ava warn about the potential dangers of dismissing a child’s experience, especially when it’s a valid one.
Sophie says, “When a child’s experience is dismissed, it can potentially have a negative long term effect on their emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing.” In her experience as a Trauma Informed coach, she has seen how this can cause emotional trauma to the child. “This emotional trauma can affect the child’s development as an adult and affect their ability to form healthy relationships, potentially affecting their personal and professional life later. In fact, some children may even face confusion on recognising what is abuse, which puts them at risk of being an abuse victim again,” she went on.
For Ava, dismissing a child’s valid experiences consistently is akin to telling them that their feelings are not valued and are unimportant to their parents. “There’s a possibility of the child experiencing trauma by replaying the incident repeatedly. This trauma could then manifest in them ‘acting out’ or resorting to ‘silent’ behaviours like refusing to listen to their parents, being non-cooperative, having difficulty trusting people or making friends, or even more severe mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or complex PTSD in the longer term,” she says.
We are our children’s support and refuge
As parents, we are our children’s primary caregivers. It’s only natural that they come to us for comfort and support in times of difficulty. One of the best things we can do as parents is to protect our children from harm by equipping them with the essential skills to speak up, and most importantly, listen when they do. Sophie sums this up perfectly: “It’s essential for parents to provide the necessary emotional and professional support that they need to ensure their safety.”