Why people sometimes doubt children who have been abused

Why people sometimes doubt children who have been abused
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I recently read that a child who is being sexually abused or trafficked has to tell an average of seven adults before someone believes them.

That’s messed up.

If a child came to us and said that someone was hurting them, why wouldn’t we believe them?

A common point that people bring up against children who speak out is that their stories don’t always line up. Sometimes a child will even contradict themselves when telling the story multiple times. They’ll get the sequence of events wrong, or forget exactly what was said.

And so what?

This happens when a child is traumatized. Hell, it happens to adults. Even eyewitness reports of street crimes are unreliable.

And before you go saying, “Witnessing something is different than experiencing it!” Here’s a Scientific American article about the way our minds work with memories. Basically, we don’t “record memories.” We have to reconstruct them every time we call them up. It’s not like watching a video. It’s like putting together a puzzle.

Trauma messes with our brains even more.

When rape victims report assaults (which isn’t often), they sometimes aren’t believed. Sometimes this is because they don’t seem like victims (whatever victims are “supposed” to seem like)—they aren’t emotional enough, or they can’t remember the details of the event or their attacker.

In a Slate article, one cop describes his experiences with rape victims:

“The victims, most of them women, often had trouble recalling an attack or couldn’t give a chronological account of it. Some expressed no emotion. Others smiled or laughed as they described being assaulted.”

Basically, our brains have trouble processing trauma, and so they start working in ways that make it possible for a person to keep functioning.

“The brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is key to decision-making and memory—often becomes temporarily impaired. The amygdala, known to encode emotional experiences, begins to dominate, triggering the release of stress hormones and helping to record particular fragments of sensory information. Victims can also experience tonic immobility—a sensation of being frozen in place—or a dissociative state.”

So yeah. Sometimes victim accounts don’t sound believable.

Trauma messes with children’s brains even more than that, and can make them sound even less believable.

In an article by Andrea Grimes, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, she addresses the issue of people accusing children of making up stories, which came up again after Dylan Farrow’s accusations against Woody Allen came up in the press.

“I hear people say that Dylan Farrow must be lying—after all there is a video of her as a child, unable to recount her abuse in vivid detail, from start to finish, in one defiant take!

“Oh, I cannot hear that one. I cannot hear it. There are no lengths to which 5-year-old Andrea would not have gone to prevent the details of her abuse from becoming known to others. In fact, every time I had a clear opportunity to out my abuser, and to detail my trauma? I denied it even more, created elaborate excuses, let details slip but then refused to cooperate. I lived in abject fear of being punished for what another human being had done to me.”

Andrea writes about the way her brain created a labyrinth of thoughts to insulate her from the abuse. Anytime she would start to remember the abuse, she’d redirect her thoughts to something else—a song, a favorite movie—until her mind did that involuntarily and she could no longer really remember what had happened.

But that didn’t mean it didn’t happen. It all came back up for processing later.

Another reason adults may not believe a child’s account, is that predators often go out of their way to gain a child’s trust . . . and the trust of the child’s family and surrounding adults. They might single out a child for “grooming,”—taking them out for ice cream, going to ball games, etc.—before starting the abuse. They often groom the family and other adults too, so they’re seen as more trustworthy.

People who prey on children sometimes put themselves in positions in society where they have easy access to kids—working in schools, or camps, or clubs. If an abuser is in a respected position, where other adults see them in a positive light, and then a child comes forth with a garbled, fake-sounding report of being hurt, it may sound to the adult like someone has told the child to say those things.

Children are also often easily coached—so much so that there are strict rules around how interrogators talk with children. Memory is malleable, and children are known to repeat phrases and ideas said by people in authority.

But only 4–8% of child sexual abuse reports are faked. And children who fake them are usually coached by an adult involved in a custody battle.

And finally, a big reason adults sometimes don’t believe children’s accounts of abuse, is because they just don’t want to. It’s too horrible to think about, and they don’t know how to react if the stories are true:

“Two-thirds of teachers do not receive specific training in preventing, recognizing or responding to child sexual abuse in either their college coursework or as part of their professional development.”

Andrea Grimes has some nice words about this problem, too:

“I believe part of the solution is to help people who aren’t survivors learn to hear stories of survival in productive, non-victim-blaming ways. We need to change the paradigm of reception, to empower people to hear the words ‘I was raped’ or ‘I was abused,’ so that they can hold them and experience them without defensiveness, panic, or pity. If we do this—give listeners a cultural script for hearing these stories—I think we will go a long way toward empowering survivors to tell these stories….

“I very rarely talk about my own abuse, but whenever I do, I talk about it with a mind toward making other people comfortable with my story. I wish I didn’t have to, but I’m doing it for myself as much as I’m doing it for them. If we are going to do right by survivors, then we need to empower those who can support them.”

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