Signs of Sexual Abuse
Have you ever been talking with a student and been bombarded with a Holy Spirit nudge that you couldn’t ignore?
I am sure all of us at some point have experienced that discordant feeling that something was not quite right. One of every nine women and one in every fifty-three boys under the age of eighteen are sexually abused in America. Since this is an extremely underreported crime, it is quite possible that that statistic is even higher. That means that if your youth group has ten students in it, chances are one of those students is a survivor of sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse is meshed in a web of shame and self-loathing; as a result, many students remain silent. As leaders of our youth, it is important that we be diligently aware of our students and the silent communications that they are sending us. The signs of sexual abuse are confusing at best and often present in extreme polarities. But when you witness students who fall in the outliers of your group in either polarity, be watchful.
Survivors can be either severely modest or extremely promiscuous.
The trauma of the abuse will drive the student to either guard their bodies from further harm by covering it or act out sexually. Sexual abuse sends a student into a state of trauma, where emotions are dull and the victim feels numb. Some students will attempt to counter the numbness by acting out sexually, in an attempt to “feel something.” Either extreme is dangerous.
Survivors can be overtly sanguine or deeply withdrawn.
In an attempt to hide their pain, many survivors will become actors, putting on a happy and well-rehearsed show for others. The shame of the abuse is too much to handle so they create an alternative reality where they have perfect lives and families. Abuse victims can be the withdrawn wall-flower or the vibrant worship leader. Drug abuse- either motivated by a need to escape or by a need to excel- is often a reality for these students.
Survivors can engage in self-injuring or over-achieving behaviors.
Shame is a very dark and powerful emotion. When felt deeply, this negative emotion can drive students to extremes. Often abusers will communicate to the victim that they are to blame for the perpetrators acts. Students often believe the lie and, in their shame, punish themselves by inflicting self-harm, or suicide. The other extreme, while more socially accepted, is just as damaging. These students demand absolute protection from themselves and others. They cover their feels of unworthiness and a need for control. by overachieving in all areas.
While signs of abuse often present themselves in these extremes, it is very possible that survivor signs will span the spectrum of these polarities. In that reality, this list is meant only as a guide. If you suspect sexual abuse or a student explicitly communicates that someone is sexual abusing them, seek help immediately. Here are some ways to prepare all leaders to deal with this difficult issue:
Mandatory Reporting Training
All 50 states require that people who work with children and teens report abuse. Many states do not have a clerical exemption for mandatory reporting. That means that if you live in one of these states, and you do not report abuse, then you could be held legally responsible. It is important that all leaders be aware of the law so they can protect both the student and the church.
Volunteer Sexual Abuse Training
Part of an effective strategy to fight abuse is to train leaders on what to do when they encounter abuse situations. An amazing organization called Darkness to Light provides leadership training to churches and community organizations on how to prevent and recognize the signs of sexual abuse.
This organization offers both online and facilitator led training. Any leader who interacts with children or teens would benefit from participation in this training.
Protect the Child Above the Institution
Being a mandated reporter means that often youth leadership is placed in difficult situations. Since in 80% of reported sexual abuse cases the parent is the perpetrator, the reveal of this abuse could cause strife in the church. If the perpetrator is in leadership, it could produce an avalanche of congregational fractures and irreparable harm to the reputation of the intuition.
As ministers our first knee-jerk reaction is to protect our ministry and its influence; however, in situations of abuse, we must always protect the minor first. The greater good is not served by minimizing the damages or silencing the victim. Not only is it the law, but it is God’s mandate as well. Ezekiel 16 discusses an ugly time in the history of the people of God. People were literally burning their children on alters as sacrificing to false Gods. As a result, God poured judgment down on his people for not protecting their children. As youth leaders, we are shepherds. Our mandate is to not protect our ministries, but to protect our students.
One Final Thought
An abuse survivor doesn’t need you to fix them. That is not our job; in fact, we can do damage if we try. What survivors need from us is to believe them and put their physical, emotional, and spiritual welfare first. God will take care of his church. Our mandate is to tenderly care for his sheep.
Child Help USA National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.