Question of Uncle’s Perversion Requires Delicate Handling

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(The Vancouver Sun, April 9, 2001)

Q: Last week, my sixteen year old daughter refused to attend a family function. Although she would not say why she felt so strongly about this, she did hint that it had something to do with an uncle she saw occasionally when she was younger and has not seen in several years. A couple of days ago, I overheard her say on the phone to a friend, that he was a pervert and will never get a chance to see her again. Her self esteem has plummeted in the last few years and I had assumed it had to do with body image and just generally struggling with adolescence. I’m afraid this uncle has done something to her. How can I approach her on this?
M.G., Vancouver, B.C.

Teresa and Saleema: Trust your instincts on this. You need to talk to your daughter immediately. Start by telling her what you overheard and voicing your fears. When you speak to her, be extra sensitive to her need for a safe environment in which to talk about this. Pick a space in your home that is private and try to phrase any questions in an open ended form. For example, if she has experienced a form of sexual harassment or abuse and is ready to talk about it, you will get more information asking a question like "in what way did your uncle behave like a pervert?" then "did he do something to you?". Close ended questions are often answered by children and teens with a quick "no" regardless of what they are actually thinking. Keep in mind, kids rarely disclose abuse the first time the topic is raised. A more familiar pattern of disclosure sounds like an initial "no", followed by a later disclosure of " well, only sometimes", with further details divulged only when the situation becomes less threatening. Recanting the disclosure when repercussions unfold is also common. If you do learn she has been abused by her uncle, have her see a professional counselor trained specifically in the area of sexual abuse. A report will need to be forwarded to intake for the Ministry for children and families to protect other children from this man. Unfortunately, sexual abuse is more common than people think. Statistics show a disturbing rate of 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys have experienced a sexual assault by the age of 18. Over 85% of these assaults involve someone they knew and trusted, with over 50% of these offenders being family members. Signs to keep an eye out for in teens: any drastic changes in personality, promiscuous behavior or a repulsion to the topic of sex, shame attached to their bodies, eating disorders, poor body image, lying, shoplifting, drug or alcohol abuse, nightmares or night terrors, self abuse or mutilation, suicidal thoughts or behavior, feelings of betrayal or anger, amongst others. VISAC (Vancouver Incest and Sexual Abuse Center) is an excellent community resource and can be reached at #874-2938. Also, two books written especially for teens are: "The Me Nobody Knows" by Barbara Bean and Shari Bennett and "How long Does it Hurt?" by Cynthia Mather and Kristina E. Debye.