If you think that your child may have been abused, it is important not to keep this to yourself. Talking to other people can help you to work out the reason you are beginning to think the way you are and may help steer you in the right direction to get some help. It is important not to jump to any conclusions about abuse based on limited knowledge as children vary so much in how they present and they all react differently to different things in their lives. Sometimes their reactions are nothing to do with having been abused but are to do with something else entirely. It is always better to be as clear as possible about what you are dealing with before you take action.
If it turns out that your child has been abused get help sooner rather than later. Try not to quiz your child based on something you have read or jump to conclusions about what type of abuse your child has suffered. Children get very mixed up and confused quite easily and if you have made too many assumptions you can easily put the idea into your child’s head that what they suffered was more complex than it really was. Try instead to love and care for your child in a way that is not seeking information, but rather, helping them to recover from the trauma. The child will begin to talk in its own time and in its own way. Even if what your child says sounds a bit off the planet, remember that sometimes children use fantasy as a means of coping and expressing what they are feeling.
If your child has been apart from you for quite long periods of several days or a few weeks, or you have recently taken on to look after a child who has lived elsewhere, and you find the child to be very traumatised, something major may have happened to the child. They may have been bullied, frightened or abused in any number of ways and investigative agencies such as the police and social services can help you to get to the bottom of it. Ritual abuse is certainly not the most common form of abuse carried out on children and it takes many different forms. Be open to hearing about anything but keep a firm hold on reality and common sense with anything you hear.
The sorts of things that may alert you to the possibility of ritual abuse of your child are:
For some parents and carers it is even more difficult as, over time, the child begins to disclose the almost unbelievable fact that they were ritually abused. Often this comes out many years after the abuse has stopped and the parent is sometimes able to think back to strange behaviour exhibited by their child at the time or soon afterwards. This can lead to a great deal of self-blaming as the parent struggles with not having noticed the signs of abuse or with their own lack of basic awareness. The main thing that every parent and carer must keep clearly in mind is that the abusers are the only ones to blame in any abuse situation.
It is not essential to get a child to talk about the details of what happened to help them to heal. Unless the child wants to talk about it in such a way, or if they need to talk to an investigator, it is better to leave them alone. What most children need is to be comforted, reassured and continually told that they are now safe from harm. Essentially, the only people who really need to know the finer details of what actually happened are the child protection practitioners who may work with the child during an investigation. These people are the ones with the skills to find out what the child is trying to say. Parents trying to get information out of the child can sometimes get in the way of investigative agencies. Telling about abuse is never easy and just because a parent may want to know the detail of something, is no reason to put a child through it.
Some children do not remember the abuse for a long time and when they do begin to remember, it is very frightening and confusing for them. It is also difficult for parents to begin to understand how the child could possibly have forgotten what happened to them. Yet, it is quite common for severely traumatise children to put their terrible memories so far away from themselves that they become buried very deeply inside. Only with time, care and sometimes a memory trigger to remind the child of what happened, the memories may begin to surface. Sometimes the memories come back slowly over a long period of time and they are almost always very distressing and painful to the child.
Other children never forget but are unable and/or unwilling to talk about what they experienced. The enforced silence and the fear can be too great an obstacle for them to overcome for a long time. Also, as the child gets older and leads a more normal life free from abuse, they realise that what they experienced was wrong and in many ways unbelievable. Sometimes they feel to blame for what happened to them and their perceived part in it and sometimes they find it hard to believe their own memory and begin to take refuge in denial themselves.
If you suspect that your child has been ritually abused don’t try to force them to talk about it. Try to keep an open mind, as you may be wrong in your suspicion of abuse or ritual abuse. Instead, work at building up trust with your child and let them know that you are there to listen to them if they ever want to talk to you about anything. Make time available for your child and encourage them to share their feelings with you when they want to. Try talking through your fears with another adult and write down the reasons that you are beginning to suspect abuse of any kind. You can call the police or social services for advice and information or, if this is too big a step to take, you can call a helpline.
If your suspicions are realised and your child begins to talk unprompted about being abused by one or more people, being taken to strange places, people dressing up, animals hurting them, people chanting, torture and child murder and things that sound a bit like rituals being carried out (they will not use the words abuse or ritual), they are possibly talking about ritual abuse and you should contact outside help as quickly as possible. In the case where the child suggests that these things are still happening to them, remove them immediately from the people they are naming or indicating are responsible. It is better to believe the child in the first instance than to take any risks. Investigative agencies will hopefully soon work out if any of the allegations might be true.
You can help the child by:
Letting your child know that it is safe to talk to you about how they are feeling. Keep telling them that they are now allowed to talk and tell about what happened and that if they want to, they can even tell the police about it.
Letting them stay in control of the process as much as possible by talking when they want, about what they want and to the person they choose to talk to.
Try not to rush to the police or other investigative agencies. Your child may not be ready to do this yet and the process of investigation may frighten them and make them retract what they are saying. Be aware though that the best agency to investigate allegations of abuse is the police and you should avoid too much questioning of your child. By questioning your child you may make the work of the police much harder. Focus instead on making certain that your child is now safe from harm and letting them say the things they want to in their own way and time. Encourage them to talk about how they feel and reassure them that they are doing nothing wrong by telling about things that happened to them. Leave the getting of the details and facts to the child protection professionals.
Obviously if your child or other children are still at risk, you may need to inform someone in authority quite quickly. Give yourself time to calm down first though so that you will be able to support your child effectively through the investigative process. Waiting an hour or two to give yourself and your child time to think will not generally make any big difference to a child or the investigation. If you must go to the police, if you can, hold back on the less believable aspects of the abuse at first. Try to keep the things you say in terms of, ‘I think my child may have been abused’, give the reasons you think this and let the police find out the details of it from your child. In most cases the abuse happened many years before and there would be no real proof other than what your child says.
Find out as much as you can about the subject of abuse rather than jumping to conclusions about it. Find out all you can about trauma and posttraumatic stress and how to help traumatised children. Remember that much of what you read will be theories and the ‘one-size fits all’ approach may not suit your particular child. Children, just like adults, are unique individuals with different needs and you may need to shop around to get the most appropriate help for your child.
Don’t assume that your doctor will have all the answers for you. Most doctors know nothing about the subject of ritual abuse and therefore nothing about the effects of ritual abuse on individuals. If you are lucky enough to have a doctor who is prepared to learn about it and admit what they don’t know, you may be able to get a referral to someone who really can help.
Find out what extra support is out there for your child and let your child know about it and how to access it.
Avoid if you can any programme offering to help survivors recover memories. Your child can decide whether or not they want this, as they get older. Memories are often suppressed in survivors for very good reason and to protect the survivor, they will be recovered quite naturally when, and if, the survivor is able to cope better with them. There is no need to force the process of remembering and it can be dangerous for the survivor as they may not be able to handle knowing it all. There is also the danger that later on there will be an accusation of a therapist implanting false memories in the child.
Find out what support is out there for you and the others in your family and reach out for it. The more support you are able to get for yourself and your family, the better able you will be to continue to provide support for your child through this.
Beware self-proclaimed experts! Some people do have expertise in dealing with trauma and abuse. Some even have expertise in working with ritual abuse survivors. On the other hand, you know your own child better than anyone else and it is your child who has lived through the trauma and needs to develop their own expertise in directing their own healing. No one else can do this for them and people will often help best by providing practical support and being there for the child and the family. On occasions quality psychiatric help can assist with more specific problems such as problems with flashbacks, panic attacks, depression, mental health, eating or self-injury. Often though, you will find that your child and yourself gain a great deal of expertise yourself and will end up teaching the practitioners rather than learning very much from them.