Recognizing the Abused Child

by Sandra L. Sheldon, P.A. Poos and G.M. Balch, Jr.

Ms. Sheldon is former director of Brea United Methodist Counseling Center’s child sexual abuse unit in Brea, California. At the time this article was written, Ms. Poos was the counseling center’s program director, and Mr. Balch was pastor of Brea United Methodist Church and the center’s executive director.

This article appeared in the Christian Century August 1-8, 1984, p. 739. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Abused children can be found in every city, in every neighborhood, in every congregation. To deny this or to ignore the warning signs is to help perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

“But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear” [Matt. 13:16].

Establishment of a counseling center focusing on work with sexually abused children and adults was not our original goal. But, beginning as a small community outreach program for families in need two years ago, our project quickly evolved into a counseling center skilled in treating the victims of sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse is an uncommonly common thing. It knows no cultural, economic, social or religious barriers. It rears its ugly head in the best of families. Although there is no “typical” victim, those who have suffered this kind of abuse certainly share many behaviors and feelings. Staff members at Brea United Methodist Counseling Center (BUMCC) soon discovered that certain questions seemed to elicit quite similar responses from many of our clients. These people appeared to have one thing in common: they had been sexually molested or abused. We soon found that a profile was emerging.

Not all or even most of the problems we deal with at the counseling center involve sexual abuse. Many clients seek help in developing more effective coping or parenting skills. Others want to become more assertive or more decisive with family, friends and/or co-workers. Still others acknowledge difficulties in relating to their spouses, or are experiencing “minor” problems with noncompliance from their children. However, a fair share of incest victims and sexually abused children have been referred to us by other agencies since we have established a reputation for working successfully with this population.

Most, though not all, of our clients regularly attend church -- be it Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Mormon, Pentecostal or Catholic. Some attend nontraditional or nondenominational churches. All appear to have some degree of awareness of Christian doctrines and concepts. There seems to be no correlation between a person’s religious affiliation or religious practices and sexual abuse. Victims and/or perpetrators come from all backgrounds. All are in pain and are seeking relief from that pain.

Our clients have intelligence levels ranging from average to superior; they are neither ignorant nor illiterate. They watch television and read newspapers and magazines. They know about sexual abuse and molestation both through these media and through firsthand experience. What other similarities characterize this group?

Low self-esteem and low self-worth rank first in a victim’s profile. Feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, together with an inability to trust and a sense of being immobilized, all vie for second place. Victims often have great difficulty in living up to their potential, which may be quite high. Their lack of assertiveness leads to passive acceptance of abusive behaviors from others. Dependency becomes an issue for them. Interpersonal problems with co-workers, family and/or friends are common, as is sexual dysfunction, especially within marriage. Unsatisfactory ‘‘affairs” and/or blatant promiscuity tend to increase the victim’s sense of shame and guilt. Drug and alcohol abuse may lead to suicidal thoughts and/or suicide attempts or other self-destructive behaviors. This in turn reinforces the already low sense of self.

Only a few of the adults who were abused as children realize that their present-day problems are connected with their earlier victimization. Why, we wondered, are they so unaware of the impact that sexual abuse has had and continues to have on their lives?

In order to answer that crucial question, we will follow experiences of “Jeff,’’ an idealistic young graduate student who joined our staff. Because Jeff wanted to gain some practical experience in working with sexually abused children, he asked if he could do an internship at BUMCC. We knew that he was an active Christian who especially enjoyed working with youth groups. We all agreed that working with young victims could be a valuable learning experience for a person who hoped one day to have his own church and congregation.

Prior to accepting Jeff as a counseling intern, our staff gave him specialized training in dealing with sexually abused children. We are very much aware that a degree in counseling or psychology does not adequately prepare people for working with the sexually abused. An intellectual awareness of the dynamics of such abuse is not enough. The emotional impact is always at a gut-level!

We explained to Jeff the need to spot and identify ‘‘red flag” signals. For example, a child may exhibit sexual behaviors which are developmentally inappropriate. Such behaviors may be as blatant as simulating a sexual act with a doll or another child, or they may be more subtle, such as walking or talking in seductively adultlike ways.

Fourteen-year-old and younger children who have been or are being sexually abused often exhibit many behavioral cues. Their play is quite aggressive. They may obsessively need to keep things going, and their play may be excessively sexual, reflecting more knowledge than is normal for their age group. They often tend to be withdrawn and to relate inadequately to their peers; family fantasies are common. Such children may either be very guarded about their bodies, or they may display highly provocative sexual behavior. They may be nervous and fearful. The majority are compliant, shy and uncommunicative.

Sexually abused children do not understand their feelings and seldom realize that their ways of behaving are abnormal and/or inappropriate. How the many different kinds of behaviors resulting from incest and sexual abuse manifest themselves often depends on the personalities of individual children and the kinds of experiences that took place. The more traumatized the child is, the more bizarre his or her behavior will be -- and the more extreme the reaction to social interactions.

Because Jeff wanted a more comprehensive list of warning signals, we cited the following: (1) extreme reclusiveness, fearfulness, or nonresponsiveness to peer interactions; (2) physical and/or emotional difficulties or complaints (nightmares, phobias, stomach pains, venereal infections, etc.); (3) violent or highly aggressive behaviors; (4) low self-esteem and low self-image; (5) vacillation between being pseudo-adult and ultra-immature; (6) regressive behaviors (thumb-sucking, clinging, infantile postures, baby talk); (7) bedwetting which is not an organic or developmental problem. We stressed that although any one of these symptoms may not, in itself, indicate sexual abuse, all do show that the child is experiencing some kind of physical, emotional or psychological discomfort, and should be checked out.

Sexual abuse, whether it occurs ‘‘only once or twice” or many times, usually has a critical impact on personality development. Self-esteem suffers immediately, and this is quickly followed by guilt, feelings of helplessness, depression and repressed emotionality.

Academic problems are common among abused children, as are difficulties with concentration and social interactions. Extreme passivity or aggressiveness may be manifested. Their attitudes are often quite punitive and self-destructive. They have experienced a betrayal and a personal violation which should not be, but often is, ignored or discounted in some way.

The victimized child adjusts and copes with the situation by assuming responsibility for what has happened. Feelings of shame and self-incrimination have a profound affect on all of his or her future relationships. Trusting becomes a lifelong problem.

We believe that it is important for counselors to provide structure and consistency when dealing with their young clients. Additionally, we recommend that they give the children explicit permission to be honest in expressing their feelings, and that the counselors in turn be open and accepting of all that is shared with them.

When Jeff completed his first year of internship with BUMCC, he said something which none of us will ever forget: “My eyes have been opened and I can never again not see. I will be unable to ignore the warning signs of children who are hurting. I have heard their cries and will never again be deaf to their silent pleas for help.”

We at the counseling center believe that it is important that counselors, parents and religious leaders alike learn how to identify the various indicators of sexual abuse. We have a Christian responsibility to do everything within our power to stop such abuse and exploitation. Without some form of intervention, the children’s risk of future victimization is greatly increased. Where do we begin?

The term “sexual abuse” covers a wide range of behaviors. Some, like an obscene phone call or exhibitionism, are shocking and annoying. Others -- incest, rape, child pornography or child prostitution -- are more tragic and traumatizing.

The children we work with generally have suffered the latter kind of abuse. Their experiences vary from a single or a few isolated incidences to chronic abuse, often beginning in infancy and continuing until its discovery or disclosure years later. Anger and hostile feelings may not surface immediately. In fact, anger is often repressed, sometimes for many years. Unfortunately, victims are seldom able similarly to repress or deny their feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.

Chronic or ongoing sexual abuse by someone close to the family (a relative, friend or neighbor) can disrupt a child’s psychosocial developmental tasks. Victimized children often develop poor social skills with peers, though they may camouflage this lack by becoming overly gregarious. They are often unable to form anything but very superficial relationships. These children find it extremely difficult to trust people, and are confused as to their sexual roles and identities. Suicide, drugs and alcohol may become avenues of escape for them.

Many parents mistakenly believe that their children would never fall for molesters’ advances or ploys. But child molesters are highly skilled manipulators and usually mislead adults as well as children. National statistics indicate that sexual abuse occurs in one out of six families; one child in every four is victimized.

We have all told our children, “Don’t talk to strangers!” But molesters are often not strangers, but relatives, neighbors, family friends or church acquaintances. We need to remember that the sexual abuser is usually known or familiar to the child. A child who is molested by a stranger will probably tell someone about it shortly after it has happened. This child will usually be believed and protected from further abuse. But the victims of ongoing abuse are not so lucky.

Children are taught compliance at an early age. They are instructed to do what an adult or authority figure demands. Most children are awed or intimidated by adults. If they can’t say No when they are told to “be a good girl (or boy) and give Uncle Bob a kiss,” how can they be expected to say No when Uncle Bob makes improper advances?

Perpetrators often convince children that what is going to occur is something very special. Most children do not know that it is wrong or abnormal behavior. They may feel uncomfortable or sense that what is happening is not OK, but they will usually believe the abuser and discount their own feelings. Once the abuse has begun, the child is hooked into secrecy.

The brighter children are, the more stressful the experience will be for them when they realize that they have been duped. They will feel guilt, shame, helplessness and anger. A statement we often hear from such children is, “I should have known better.” Yet how can we expect our children to “know” unless we teach them the skills needed to protect themselves from sexual abuse, just as we teach them other forms of safety?

We need to recognize the signs of abuse and to be willing, as concerned Christians and parents, to become advocates for children who are hurting. We need to listen to our children and to talk to them about sexual abuse. We need to protect them without unduly alarming or scaring them. Parents are not the only ones who find it difficult to talk to children about such abuse. Counselors, educators, clergy and other clinicians often shy away from asking children -- and adults -- questions about it.

Research indicates that we should be wary of the motives of adults who show an acute interest in our children, and who want to spend a lot of time alone with them. Churches must carefully screen those who work with children. Another precaution is to have co-leaders for youth work. At least one of them should be selected by the congregation, since molesters tend to choose other molesters as their assistants. In addition, we can educate congregations, Sunday school teachers and other youth personnel about sexual abuse. Children can be taught the difference between “good touch and bad touch,” what “private’’ areas are, and what ‘‘lures’’ child molesters may use. They can learn how to resist getting hooked into something bad that sounds so good!

Sexual abuse is not a pleasant topic. It is not a pleasant experience. Guilt, shame, shattered spirits and self-destructive behaviors are its legacy. There are no winners in this scenario; there are only victims.

Abused children can be found in every city, in every neighborhood, in every congregation. To deny this or to ignore the warning signs is to help perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Our eyes must be opened and our ears must be trained to hear the silent pleas of the hurting children among us.