How to support children and youth who have been sexually abused and their families

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) emphasizes the crucial role that all adults who interact with children play in preventing sexual abuse. According to Ms. Pooja Hemanth, principal clinical psychologist and assistant director at MSF’s Clinical and Forensic Psychology Service, adults in various settings, including schools, social service agencies, and families, contribute to creating a safe environment where children feel empowered to disclose instances of sexual abuse.

Ms. Hemanth highlights the importance of raising awareness about child sexual abuse and recognizing that it affects both boys and girls. She emphasizes that understanding the prevalence of child sexual abuse is an essential first step in prevention efforts.

Drawing from a study she conducted, which examined 252 cases of child sexual abuse in Singapore, Ms. Hemanth identifies several factors that may contribute to delayed disclosure of abuse. These factors include cases involving family members as perpetrators and the age of the victim at the time of the initial abuse incident. This research underscores the complexity of addressing child sexual abuse and the need for proactive measures to create a protective environment for children.

Introducing Skills for Body Safety

Education aimed at preventing such abuse should commence during the preschool years, according to Ms. Lin Xiaoling, Director and Group Lead of Research and Advocacy at Singapore Children’s Society.

She emphasized that children who have been instructed in body safety are more likely to identify inappropriate actions and report instances of abuse.

These essential skills encompass understanding the correct anatomical terms for their private body parts, distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and knowing how to seek assistance.

Ms. Lin Xiaoling stressed that body safety skills should ideally be introduced at home and reinforced by educators and caregivers in a manner suitable for the child’s age.

She suggested that open and candid discussions about body safety among parents can help siblings learn about body boundaries and appropriate conduct with each other as they grow up.

The Singapore Children’s Society initiated a child sexual abuse prevention program in 2000. Since 2011, it has extended its outreach to preschool children, training educators, and involving parents in teaching body safety skills to young children.

Paying attention

Victims of abuse often show subtle signs such as changes in behavior or mood, noted Ms. Pooja. These signs could include increased crying, withdrawal, or even self-harm. It’s crucial for adults to sensitively inquire about their well-being and directly address concerns of abuse. Despite discomfort, open communication about sensitive topics like abuse is vital for fostering trust. Ms. Lin emphasized the importance of taking children’s accounts seriously and fostering a safe environment for disclosure. Establishing rapport and respecting the child’s pace are essential in facilitating disclosure. Additionally, teaching children to report abuse and providing support channels is crucial.

Effects on Other Family Members

Ms. Nawal Adam Koay, Assistant Director and Head of Reunification Service at the Singapore Children’s Society, highlighted that sexual abuse can extend to the grooming of the non-offending parent or caregiver. This involves the manipulation of the parent through distorted messages, such as negative statements about the child, to gain trust and access. Consequently, the parent’s reaction to the abuse coming to light may be influenced, leading to denial or blame towards the child. Denial often stems from a fear of potential losses, such as relationships or self-esteem. To address this, professionals focus on educating and supporting parents to ensure the child’s future safety, including recognizing grooming tactics and preventing reoccurrence.

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