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Here’s how to mentor and help kids who have suffered abuse

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A man in a white shirt works under the hood of a red car against a lush green garden alongside a young boy who is watching intently.

Landmark research shows just how much abused children respond to adults who care

Child abuse impacts about one out of every five kids in Boone County every year. The impact of that abuse is different for every child, and it can change how some kids respond to other adults, peers, and themselves. That’s why knowing how to interact and understand these experiences can help mentors and adults be better role models for kids.

As a mentor, you may not have the background with child abuse as a law enforcement officer, mental health professional, social worker, or a teacher. But you can provide a child with support and restore trust to show a child that adults and others care about them. Further, being aware of abuse or a traumatic event in a child’s life can empower you to support and recognize them in profound new ways.

Understanding the role of a mentor amid adverse childhood experiences

The 1995 “Making a Difference: An Impact Study of Big Brothers Big Sisters” by Joseph P. Tierney, Jean Baldwin Grossman, and Nancy L. Resch reported that 27.1% of the young people in their study cohort experienced some form of abuse, including 7% experiencing child sexual abuse. 

In the same study, 25-50% of the children suffering abuse came from single-parent families, but we also know 90% of all child abuse occurs between a child and someone they know. 

It’s your unique one-on-one relationship as a mentor that can — and frequently does — influence someone’s childhood for the better.  Teachers and social workers, while always well-meaning, simply have different relationships to a child. That’s why teachers and social workers might not be able to interact with a child as a mentor like you can. 

“We’ve been doing this long enough now that many of the children who were mentored years ago are now themselves adults,” says Matt Wilson, Executive Director of the Boone County Mentoring Partnership. “They’re living great lives, and they always remember the mentors who helped them earlier in their life.”

Statistically parents (either biological or step parents) are the most common source of sexual abuse, mental abuse, or physical abuse to children. But among all Indiana child abuse victims, neglect is the single largest form of abuse against Hoosier kids. 

“We work closely with organizations like Sylvia’s CAC here in Boone County,” says Wilson, adding, “And we know that a lot of the young people who walk through their doors see benefits to their mental health and recovery when they work with a mentor as part of rebuilding their lives.”

Working with and spending time with children who have experienced abuse is not all that different from working with any young person. But there are special considerations mentors should consider when working with child abuse victims:

  • Respect a child’s body boundaries by not touching them unless you’ve asked first. This includes putting a hand on their shoulders or head. Sexual abuse and physical abuse victims often recoil at being touched.
  • Avoid activities that might cause anxiety or pushing too hard for ones they seem hesitant about. It’s a good idea to encourage kids to try new things, like swimming. But recognize children who have suffered sexual abuse may not be ready to wear a bathing suit, change in a locker room, or be so exposed to others.
  • Don’t force kids to talk when they don’t want to. It’s a common challenge for parents and mentors alike to get kids to talk when they don’t want to, but it might be because they’re not ready to discuss sensitive issues or trauma yet. Forcing the subject usually does more harm than good.
  • Abused children can sometimes revert to past developmental stages or express adult matters far beyond their age. If you identify behaviors that seem out of place for a child’s age, let us know and remember the child may be processing difficult emotion. 
  • Help kids and teens set other boundaries that help them develop self-esteem by helping a child learn something new, be honest, give and receive meaningful praise, and encourage healthy relationships with peers.

When in doubt, mentors can help children feel secure and safe by simply reminding them things like, “When you’re ready, I’m ready.” Or, “We don’t have to do that today. We’ll do something else.”

There are other benefits, including:

  • Children paired in the Big Brothers Big Sisters study were less likely to take drugs or engage in violence. 
  • Children in the study also showed improvements at school. 
  • One 2010 study from the University of Toronto wrote that individuals abused as children have elevated rates of heart disease. Supporting youth after child abuse can impact their entire life. This includes demonstrating healthy habits in nutrition and physical exercise.

The death of a parent is one common need for a mentor

Abuse is among the worst adverse childhood experiences kids can endure. But there are other adverse experiences out of anyone’s control, like the death of a parent. Kids and teens are often well-served by mentors, not because a mentor is trying to “replace” a parent — no one believes parents are easily replaced — but because mentors show how much richer life can be.

Many children and teens in our Mentoring Partnership say simply having something to do, someplace to go, and someone not in a position to talk to them not “because they’re paid to” but because they want to dramatically improves their mental health and helps single parents expose their kids to new ideas, experiences, and more.

Mentors who are themselves child sexual abuse or assault survivors are a great support to kids

Adult mentors who are themselves abuse survivors can be inspiring and a source of support for kids. 

  • Non-offending caregivers and parents often appreciate this need and support. It’s why having trustworthy individuals willing to step up to have a relationship with a child is vital to the health of kids and our community. 
  • Abuse victims can perhaps relate to other abuse victims in a helpful way. Those who’ve experienced abuse can support, talk about, sense, and focus on what an abused child may need and can authentically relate to those complex emotions.

People who live through or go through a shared experience often have a deeper understanding and connection with others in similar situations. 

If you suspect the abuse is happening in the life of a child, call the Indiana Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-800-5556 or call 911 in an emergency. All adults in Indiana, including mentors, are mandated reporters by law.

More ways to support child abuse victims through mentorship

Mentors are not law enforcement officers or therapists

Mentors are not police or law enforcement officers. It’s not your job to police kids all the time, and mentors are not parents or therapists, either. But you are a caregiver while you’re together. If you suspect serious issues are impacting your mentee’s mental health and well-being, let us or your contact know immediately.

Mentors are not parents, but depending on the age of a child mentors may have to provide light guidance and discipline. It’s important to remember never to blame the child for outbursts or anger after traumatic events — it is the only way many children can articulate their emotions due to a lack of vocabulary.

Maintain a healthy, safe space to discuss ideas and issues openly. This works both ways for mentors and mentees. If a child sees you discussing issues openly and without fear, they, too, will feel the same.

There are many ways to help a child who has experienced abuse. The common denominator in all these ways is to show up and be that positive person who encourages and respects a child when they might need it most. Physical and emotional safety can build self-esteem and allows a child to explore their own interests and develop a sense of identity and self. Helping them find and acknowledge what makes them an individual worthy of love and care is a very important first step in that direction. 

Every human wants love and respect. A mentor can be the person who teaches a vulnerable child that they are worthy too.

Mentorship changes lives

Dozens of kids in Boone County are waiting

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