Michael Abrahams | Family friends and child abuse
Every now and then a patient would be accompanied by her spouse when she turns up for her appointment at my office. In many cases, their presence is welcomed as they are able to ask me questions directly and therefore be more aware of the issues their “other half” may be experiencing.
So, when Marjorie* came to my office, accompanied by her husband, I was happy to see him. She has a common gynaecological condition that has the potential to affect her fertility, and I could see that he was concerned. Her disorder is one I see regularly and am comfortable dealing with, and I thought that my conversation with them would not last too long.
I was wrong.
Sometimes as physicians we focus solely on the physical and forget that health also includes mental and social well-being. This woman presented herself because of pelvic symptoms, but as I asked her questions about her overall well-being, I realised that the issues below her waist paled in comparison to those residing above her neck.
Mental health is as important as physical health. Your brain controls most of your bodily functions, so if something is structurally or functional off with it, your body will be affected.
When I enquired about Marjorie’s mood, I realised that she was very stressed. So I screened her for depression and realised that she fulfilled not most, but all the criteria for the disorder, including a history of having suicidal thoughts.
As I delved into her childhood, I discovered a significant contributing factor to her malady: she was sexually molested as a child. The perpetrator was, in her own words, a “family friend”, and it was on more than one occasion. After the second episode, she told her mother, who did not believe her, and dismissed her. So, the abuse continued.
So Marjorie had not just a physical issue, but also a mental one. The next step was to look into her social well-being, and an important part of that is the relationship with her husband, which was good.
However, while speaking with her husband, I realise that he too was afflicted with depression. But he had something else in common with his wife: he too was sexually molested as a child by a “family friend”.
Sexual abuse of our children takes place at an alarming rate, and the scope of the problem is far greater than many of us realise. The perpetrators are sometimes strangers, but more often are people known by the children and their families. Sometimes they are family members themselves, but I hear the term “family friend” very often.
We must be mindful of the people we allow into the spaces of our children. Too often people we consider to be friends have their eyes on our offspring and have plans for them. Of course, there are loyal friends who will love our children as their own and would never harm them. But there are others who will molest or rape them if given a chance.
The reason why so many get away with their crimes is because they will spend time grooming our children and gaining our trust. They will laugh and play with them, give them treats and make us comfortable with the idea of having them around, and wait for us to let our guard down before they execute their deviant acts.
We must also develop relationships with our children where they feel comfortable discussing their issues with us without fear of judgment.
Marjorie told me that there was no way she would have told her father about the abuse because he was very strict, and she thought that he would have blamed her for it.
We must listen to our children.
If a child tells you that he or she has been molested, we should never dismiss them. Yes, they could be lying, but in the vast majority of cases they will be speaking the truth.
You may not want to believe that ‘Uncle Barry’ is a pedophile, but sometimes the truth hurts, and dismissing a child in distress places that child’s physical, mental and social well-being at serious risk.
If the child does not want to go to someone’s house, do not berate them for it. Try to find out why.
I remember another patient of mine telling me that when she was a little girl, she used to spend time at her grandmother’s shop. One of her grandmother’s favourite clients used to go behind the counter, put his hands up my patient’s little dress, and into her panties, and grope her. When she told her grandmother that she no longer wanted to go to the shop, she was scolded.
And we must watch our children. We must look at their behaviour and make note of any changes that could indicate that they are being abused, such as becoming withdrawn, aggressive or overtly sexual. If they clam up and appear to be uncomfortable around certain people, do not ignore it.
Friendship is important for our own well-being. A good, loyal and supportive friend is worth more than his or her weight in gold. However, always remember that we owe it to our children to protect them. They are the vulnerable ones. It is better to sacrifice a relationship with a friend, than allow them to destroy the life of a child.
*Name changed to protect anonymity