How can we encourage our girls to open up about abuse and stand strong


It was highly inspiring yet appalling to watch US gymnast Simone Biles testify about the abuse she endured all these years. She along with other elite American gymnasts, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols condemned the US Olympic Committee and the FBI for mishandling the Larry Nassar case, for “turning a blind eye” to the abuse they had experienced at the hands of the former national team doctor.
Between narrating the events that took place and demanding accountability, Simone goes on to express why she felt the need to speak up. “I don’t want another young gymnast, Olympic athlete or any individual to experience the horror that I and hundreds of others have endured before, during and continuing to this day,” she says.

The burden of having undergone immense suffering and then to be courageous enough to revisit the painful event so as to empower other young women is not only inspiring, but also significant. The fact that these horrendous acts of abuse have infiltrated the walls of highly reputable institutions, it is only a matter of time before someone in our own family becomes a victim of such abuse.
That said, protecting our girls and building a safe space for them is of utmost importance. Not only should they be informed enough to identify abuse but they should also feel comfortable enough to talk about any form of abuse. But how can we really achieve that is the question that may trouble parents. To answer that, we have established mental health experts shedding light on the same.

The plight of victims of sexual abuse

The hypocrisy of a patriarchal system is known to all. While it recognizes acts of abuse by men, it often does so at the cost of a woman’s morality.

That said, as heinous as a crime like sexual abuse and assault may be, it is often the victim who has to tread the difficult path to justice. From revisiting the horrifying past and living with the traumatic memory to bearing the criticism of the society, there’s a lot of abuse that takes place post the tragic instance.

The fear of being ostracized, of being looked at with pity, is what drives sexual abuse victims to lay low and hide the displeasing truth. While justice is what they seek, peace is all they want.

Identifying sexual abuse and misconduct

When it comes to an act of abuse, it may either leave physical symptoms that are easy to identity, or may only be psychological, which are hard to grasp.

As per Dr. Shradha Shejekar, Consultant – Psychiatry, Aster RV Hospital, JP Nagar, Bengaluru, children may not be able to express themselves when they experience sexual abuse. However, she says that there may be some subtle signs.

“The child might refuse to eat, play and may avoid a certain person, may show unusual anger outburst, irritability or fearfulness and may have disturbed sleep,” she elaborates.

Akanksha Pandey, Consultant Clinical Psychology, Fortis Hospital, Bannerghatta Road, Bangalore says, “Unlike adults, children often display there distress behaviorally, not verbally.”

“A child undergoing sexual abuse may display sleep disturbances mostly reported as getting nightmares, bedwetting, extreme fearfulness, very frequent startle responses, becoming too clingy or sometimes withdrawn. Children undergoing abuse may also show sudden academic decline, irritability, changes in eating pattern. They may also manifest it through changed play behavior such as acting with toys in sexual ways,” She adds.

How to educate young children about sexual abuse?

Awareness comes with education and knowledge. And only if the child is aware of what private organs are and what sexual abuse is, then only will the child realise it when it occurs, say Dr. Shejekar.

According to the psychiatrist, a child must be educated about his or her body parts. With the help of a doll or a cartoon character, children must be taught about ‘no touch zones’ in one’s body. This is especially relevant in very young children who might not understand the depth of terms like ‘abuse’, the doctor explains.

Additionally, children should be made aware of ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ and taught consent in simplest of terms.

Communicating and building a safe space

There’s nothing more effective than a productive conversation between a parent and a child. A friendly conversation is all it takes.

Dr. Shejekar emphasises on the need to acknowledge a child’s emotional distress and the importance of listening to them without judging or punishing them.

To build a safe space, there needs to be a level of trust, a feeling of comfort and security. That said, parents should showcase empathy, be good to others. A lot of what you do may impact your child’s psychology. If they witness you being unkind to someone who has experienced abuse in life, they’ll fear sharing their experiences of abuse too.

Adding to it, Ms. Pandey lists down some Do’s and Don’ts to help you communicate better and ways to build a safe space.

-Do not blame the child
-Refrain from interrupting their flow of expression
-Don’t rush the child to talk
-Don’t ask them to forget about it or to not talk about it
-Don’t interview the child or ask many ‘why’ questions
-Don’t give opinions-Don’t display disgust
– Be active listener, do more listening and less talking or reacting
– Display a non-judgmental approach to child
– Display empathy for them to feel understood and validated
– Respect there defenses by maintaining boundaries physically and verbally

Victim blaming must be stopped

Often, rather than blaming the culprit, people hold the victim accountable for the abuse they suffered. This may lead to “fear and shame in the victim which can have severe psychological impact like isolation, slut shaming, depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies,” says Dr. Shejekar.

Additionally, a victim of abuse is often ostracized from social functions, deprived of love and marriage and looked down upon, making them hold back their agony.

This in turn encourages more more acts of abuse, given that they go unreported.

Pandey believes, “It is important to understand the state of victim hood is a product of real or perceived helplessness, thus, to overcome it requires an engagement with trust and not scapegoating.”

Encourage them to speak up, but do not compel

While it is important for people to stand up for themselves and speak their truth, it is also crucial that you understand the gravity of the situation.

Sexual abuse is not just any other matter. It leaves a lasting impact on a person’s soul and may take time to heal, which is why one must ensure and respect the victim’s privacy, and work towards building a genuine relationship so that he/she can trust you.

Most of all, empathise. If at all, your child decides to open up about the abuse they experience, listen and make them feel supported. However, make sure, there is no compulsion.


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