Children who don't tell anyone about being sexually abused often come from families that have rigid gender roles and other similar characteristics, says a University of Toronto researcher.
"It is important to identify disclosure barriers so they can be eradicated," says U of T social work professor Ramona Alaggia, author of a study which appears in the April-June 2005 issue of Families in Society. "When children are not able to disclose sexual abuse, the effects are potentially devastating."
In her qualitative study, Alaggia conducted in-depth interviews with 20 adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, then coded the data and identified themes. Four major themes became apparent in talking with the survivors. They generally came from families where gender roles were rigid and the fathers were head of the household, with mothers often having little power in the family. Family violence – spousal abuse and other forms of child abuse – was present in most of the families. In addition, communication was lacking in these homes.
"Children learned early that many things in the family simply weren't discussed, which may have inhibited them from disclosing sexual abuse," says Alaggia. Social isolation was also a condition in many of these families. Either the child or the family as a whole did not fit into their environments and did not have social supports, leaving the children feeling that they had no one safe to tell. The study participants ranged in age from 18 to 65. All had been abused by a family member; they were an average of 6.7 years old when the abuse occurred. Only 40 per cent of the participants had tried to disclose during childhood.
"Our research indicates that professionals need to cultivate the necessary skills to pick up on cues and difficult-to-discern patterns of behaviour in children that may indicate the presence of sexual abuse," says Alaggia.