April marks the observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I’ve invited Andrea Gadson to share this week, and she is a passionate advocate for sexual assault awareness and healing. In her book, Released: In Search of a King, Andrea shares a fictional story of healing for a survivor of sexual abuse. A companion workbook, Let the Healing Begin, is in development, which will empower victims of childhood sexual abuse with tools to enable their healing process.
You can follow Andrea here: http://www.surrenderedpen.com
Let me begin by painting a picture…
She eyes the uneven bars; determination coats her face. With a leap, she soars into the air, grips the lower bar firmly, and pulls her body up and over the pole. From the top bar to the lower bar and back again, her body turns and wraps in a rhythmic dance of strength, balance, and precision.
Beautiful and breathtaking is her dedication and love for this sport.
You can see it, right?
But she has a secret. She was sexually abused by the doctor she trusted to keep her healthy and performance-ready for competitions. You can’t tell by looking at her face. You can’t tell by listening to the conversations she has with friends, but she is hurting.
In 2016, the USA Gymnastics Association was crippled when reports surfaced that several young women had accused Larry Nassar, a well-known Olympic team doctor and sports medicine physician of Michigan State University (MSU), of sexual abuse. His abuse pattern targeted female athletes, including Olympic gymnasts, and students. This was only the tip of the enormous iceberg as Nassar’s total victim pool would consists of over 300 females and one male. In the fallout, Nassar was sentenced to over 100 years in prison. Several officials, including the MSU president, resigned. The University settled a multitude of lawsuits and established a fund of $500 million for victims and those who may decide to come forward in the future.
This article isn’t meant to explain how a physician can abuse women and children for over two decades and get away with it. While I could talk about the failures of a system that dismisses or diminishes abuse, I would rather focus on the victims. In the fight to bring an abuser to justice, we often lose sight of how to care for the victim. This is about the basketball player, the gymnast, the ballerina…this is about them.
Athletics is a great way for children to gain courage, have fun and make friends. Unfortunately, child abuse can occur within what should be a safe space for children. As a parent of an athlete, it’s important to be informed of the indicators of abuse, because the difficult truth is, it can happen to anyone. I’m going to share the warning signs of abuse and how to support your child – or any child in the aftermath.
Know the Warning Signs of Abuse
We don’t know what we don’t know, so let’s start by revealing the warning signs of abuse. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) provides a list of signs a child may be experiencing abuse. These include:
- unexplained changes in behavior or personality
- becoming withdrawn
- seeming anxious
- becoming uncharacteristically aggressive
- lacks social skills and has few friends, if any
- poor bond or relationship with a parent
- knowledge of adult issues inappropriate for their age
- running away or going missing
- always choosing to wear clothes which cover their body
For an expansive list, visit the RAINN site’s page on warning signs.
Before you become alarmed, take a deep breath. You don’t need to jump to conclusions if you notice some of these signs in your child. As children morph into teenagers and grow into adults, any of these signs might occur on occasion.
But if you feel any of these signs are more than growing pains, it’s important to take action. If you suspect abuse, the first step is to contact a child protection agency to gain further guidance and information on how to look for and report child abuse.
What if you suspect something?
Start by believing a child until proven otherwise.
As a child, I was abused by my biological father. My parents were divorced, but my mother believed I was the crown of my father’s life and that he would never hurt me. When I told her about the abuse, she sprang – and I mean sprang – into action. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to see my father anymore.
But back then, society needed proof to believe the child. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a courtroom informing a judge what my father did to me on weekend visits.
Don’t make a child prove the harm done to them. Operate from a place of belief for your child’s sake. Please believe until proven otherwise. The potential long-term impacts of the abuse on your child are worth taking this stance.
If you suspect abuse, find a way to delicately talk to your child. Knowing where to begin is difficult. Thankfully, there are many resources to help guide you. NSPCC is a good place to start to find information on having difficult conversations with your child.
What if I find out my child has been abused?
Upon discovering your child has been abused, there is something extremely critical you must remember: this is about your child – not you.
It may sound harsh, but the typical gut reaction of any parent is to ask: how did I let this happen? But it’s not the right question.
Instead of asking how you let this happen, the first action to take if you suspect abuse is to confirm it with your child first. Again: this is about your child – not you.
Having lived through this experience personally, I recommend the following approach:
- Do not blame yourself and start looking for the way you missed something. This is about your child…not you.
- Do what you can to protect your child. This will likely includeremoving them from the situation or making access to the child extremely difficult for the abuser.
- Do not force your child to talk. Give your child the space and opportunity to share with you or a professional, but do not force them to talk. Discussing the matter will be extremely difficult for the child and they may want to sweep it away. Keep in mind: you cannot force anyone to heal. Instead:
- Remind them they are not to blame for what happened.
- Encourage them to talk to a professional if they don’t want to talk to you.
- Reaffirm your love for them. Remind them of God’s love for them.
I know this is a tough topic
Child sexual abuse is a tough but necessary topic. After all, it can happen to anyone. Now you know the signs and how to approach a child who has been abused with love and care.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.
Psalms 34:18 NKJV
In closing, please pray with me:
Lord, as I have prayed for the children in my life, I pray for the person reading this and their children. Please dear God, protect their child’s mind that nothing wicked would live there. Protect their child’s heart that nothing broken would dwell there. Protect their child’s body so no harm or danger will come near them. Protect their child’s soul so they would always be people of good character. Protect their child’s spirit so they would always seek after you.
My continued prayers are with you
Andrea Gadson supports adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. As a survivor herself, her experience guides her in helping others kickstart their healing. Find more resources and support on her website: https://www.surrenderedpen.com/surrenderedsouls.