Opinion: children who are not in contact with their abusers during lockdown may well be displaying surprising changes in behaviour

Over the past few weeks, concerns have rightly been raised about the number of people in lockdown with their abusers. What hasn't garnered as much attention, however, is the children who are currently not being abused because they are in lockdown. Being home with their immediate families or guardians means that children who have been subjected to sexual abuse are experiencing a reprieve, because they are not in contact with their abusers.

At a time when we are being warned to be alert for sudden changes in behaviour indicating stress, you might notice the opposite with the child in your care. If you feel surprised at how well they are coping during lockdown, you might want to consider having a chat with them.

Things to look out for include:

· A reduction in bedwetting and / or nightmares (if these were issues)

· Displaying more 'mature’ behaviour – for example, opting to sleep in their own bed, when previously they resisted sleeping alone.

· Expressing no desire to return to school / activities / visiting certain friends, or relations, and not referring to community groups they were once part of.

· Seeming to be less worried than before lockdown.

· Appearing more cheerful than usual or expected.

· Being more engaged with schoolwork and/or activities at home.

· Cessation of certain "stress habits" like nail-biting, hair pulling, more serious examples of self-harm, or showering less-frequently than before.

"I believe you" are the most powerful words any victim can hear.

Of course, the manifestation of one or more of these behaviours does not necessarily mean that the child in your care has been abused, but they may indicate the need for a chat. Bear in mind that children are often warned of dire consequences should they disclose their abuse, so you will want to tread carefully. Children do not generally disclose at once, so be prepared to have more than one conversation on the topic.

(1) Proceed with caution

The child may feel scared, ashamed, embarrassed, or worried about talking to you because of threats the abuser has made. Be gentle and don’t push them to say more than they are prepared to. If the child becomes distressed, reassure them that they are doing the right thing, and you are not upset with them. Tell them they are not in trouble.

(2) How to have the conversation

Don't wade in with questions that might upset the child. Keep it light, but be alert to their responses – verbal and non-verbal. Have the chats when you’re doing some other activity, like art, or baking. Talk to them about lockdown, and the changes it’s brought.

(3) Say that you believe them

"I believe you" are the most powerful words any victim can hear. Let the child know you believe what they are saying, and that you do not hold them responsible. Repeat this often during these conversations.

Keep reminding the child that they are safe with you

(4) Don’t react – respond

If you react with anything other than gentle, loving, kindness, the child may clam up, or even retract their disclosure. Avoid displaying disgust, horror, or upset because the child may interpret that to mean you are disgusted or horrified by, or upset with, them.

(5) Listen

Listen to what the child has to say; don’t interview them. Let them tell their story in their own way, and remember that recall of traumatic events is not linear. Be mindful that you don’t force the conversation if the child isn’t ready to talk.

(6) Validate their feelings

Let your child know their feelings are real, and important. Even if they are numb that, too, is valid and okay.

(7) Let them know they are safe

Keep reminding the child that they are safe with you, and that you will continue to keep them safe – no matter what the abuser has told them.

Remind and reassure your child that it is safe to tell you whatever is on their mind

(8) Some questions to ask

Ask what they miss most about pre-lockdown life. Keep it conversational by sharing what you miss most. Tell them about the friends you miss seeing, and ask them who they miss. Ask who they are looking forward to seeing most when we’re allowed to. Pay attention to the names they don’t mention, and gently probe why. ‘Does X scare you?’ or ‘Does Y do something you don’t like when you’re alone with them?’

(9) Keep reminding them that the abuse is not their fault

While it sounds obvious to you, the child may feel they are to blame. Acknowledge what is being said, and that you appreciate what they are saying, but don't enter a secrecy-agreement with the child. Do not tell them that what they say to you will remain private.

Remind and reassure your child that it is safe to tell you whatever is on their mind – that nothing bad will happen to them for telling. Reassure them that they have done the right thing by telling you, and confirm that they will not meet the alleged abuser again.

(10) Seek professional help

You have an obligation to report any suspicions or allegations to the relevant authorities. Contact the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland for signposting.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ