Sexual abuse is the ultimate betrayal of childhood innocence. The very thought of it is enough to make any parent’s blood run cold. Humiliation and shame can make it difficult for children to report the abuse to a parent or another trusted adult. To make matters worse, the American Psychological Association indicates that 60% of sexual abuse cases involve someone the child knows, like a family friend, neighbor, child care provider, or even another child.
Approximately one in five children are sexually abused by the time they are eighteen years old, with ages seven to thirteen being the peak years for sexual abuse. Those are scary statistics, and parents need to know the facts to better protect their children.
What constitutes sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse seems to have a straightforward definition when, in fact, it is actually a very complex form of abuse. Contrary to belief, sexual abuse does not always involve touching. Sexual abuse is defined as “any sexually explicit act that harms a child’s mental, emotional, or physical well-being,” meaning that a child’s exposure to sexually explicit situations or material falls within the definition.
Less than 10% of cases involve strangers. The vast majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by a trusted adult, such as a close relative. Although some believe that girls are affected more often than boys, the truth is that sexual abuse is equal among genders. However, many experts believe that sexual abuse in boys is underreported because of the nature of guilt and shame associated with such abuse.
Sexual abuse does not have to be sustained over a period of time to be classified as such. A single incident is enough to constitute sexual abuse, although ongoing sexual abuse tends to escalate over time in both frequency and intensity. The following forms of assault constitute sexual abuse:
- Oral or anal sex
- Obscene phone calls
What are the signs of sexual abuse?
Children who are sexually abused often do not openly reveal the abuse to adults. In fact, two out of every three adults who were sexually abused as children admit that they never told anyone until they were much older. Young children often disclose the abuse accidentally while school-aged children are more likely to report sexual abuse to a trusted caregiver. Adolescents, on the other hand, usually confide in friends. Often the abuser will play on a child’s emotions or fears to avoid disclosure.
Because victims usually remain silent, it’s important for parents and caregivers to recognize the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse. Physical symptoms are rare; the symptoms often manifest themselves through emotional and behavioral changes. The nonprofit child abuse prevention organization Darkness to Light lists the following behavioral and emotional signs of sexual abuse:
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Nightmares, night terrors, or other sleep disturbances
- Changes in eating habits
- Fear of particular people or places; these are usually the people and places they associate with the abuse.
- Reluctance to be left alone with a particular person.
- Mood changes like anger or aggressiveness
- Runaway behavior
- Change in attitude toward school or academics
- Lack of interest in friends, sports, or activities
- Unexplained and/or frequent health problems like headaches or stomach aches
- Avoidance of relationships
- Low self-esteem
- Self-mutilation or cutting
- Changes in body perception
- Regressions like bedwetting or thumb sucking
- Overly compliant behavior
- Advanced knowledge of sexual language or behaviors
- Abnormal sexual behaviors
Additional warning signs include the following:
- Trouble swallowing
- Mentioning events or clues that could initiate a conversation about sexual issues
- Writes, draws, or plays about sexual or frightening images
- Suddenly talks about a new friend who is older
- Has unexplained money, new toys, or other presents
- Reluctant to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities
- Changes appearance to appear unattractive or undesirable
- Suicide attempts
- Sexual promiscuity (in teens)
Though physical symptoms are rare, they include the following:
- Trouble walking or sitting
- Vaginal infections
- Pain, discharge, or bleeding in the genitals, anus, or mouth
- Cuts or tears around the vagina or anus
- Redness, rash, swelling, or other trauma to the genital or anal area
- Recurring or persistent pain during urination or bowel movements
- Wetting or soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training
- Sexually transmitted diseases
What should a parent do if sexual abuse is suspected?
Sexual abuse has far-reaching consequences. People who were sexually abused as children often have sexual problems throughout adulthood, including promiscuity and the inability to maintain a stable relationship. Discovering the sexual abuse and acting upon the information is key to reestablishing the child’s wellbeing.
As difficult as it is, adults must maintain a sense of calm when asking a child about a suspected case of child abuse. Don’t put the child on the spot by demanding answers. This tactic not only scares the child, but can also cause him or her to bury the secret deeper. Children often mistakenly believe that the abuse is their fault and that they did something to bring it on themselves. Instead, lead the conversation with a series of open-ended questions that require answers beyond a simple “yes” or “no.” If the child discloses sexual abuse, stay calm. It’s important to tell the child that you believe him or her and offer assurances that you will do what you can to protect him or her. Reassure the child that he or she did the right thing by telling you and that it’s not his or her fault that the abuse happened. Don’t make promises you can’t keep or have no control over, such as promising that the abuser will pay for his or her actions. Do not confront the abuser yourself.
Even if a child doesn’t confess sexual abuse, remember that a parent’s intuition is usually accurate. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and go with your gut. Every state has a State Child Abuse hotline to report acts of abuse. Call them and report the situation if the abuser lives within the home. If the abuse was perpetrated by someone outside the home, contact the police. If the child displays physical signs of abuse, take him or her to the doctor for verification and documentation. Keep in mind that certain individuals who regularly work with children, such as school personnel, social workers, health care providers, mental health professionals, child care providers, medical examiners, and law enforcement officials are required to report child abuse and neglect.
A counselor can be a vital resource for parents and children whether or not suspected abuse has been disclosed. They are trained professionals who can help the child understand that he or she is not to blame for the abuse. Counselors can also help reduce the behavioral and emotional damage imparted by sexual abuse.
How can parents safeguard children against sexual abuse?
It’s unrealistic to think a parent can be present with his or her child at all times: both parents and children need individual time and privacy. But parents need to be aware of children’s friends and activities. If the child is involved in athletics or organizations, parents should make sure that events are managed so that a child is never left alone with an adult. A parent’s presence at sporting events and other activities sends a message to possible abusers that the child is well monitored which presents an obstacle to abuse. Furthermore, individuals who sexually abuse children often have certain characteristics that a vigilant parent can pick up on. Asking to spend time alone with a child or breaking parent rules to gain the child’s favoritism are warnings that shouldn’t be ignored.
Perhaps the most important protection against sexual abuse is an ongoing and open dialogue with your child. Young children should be taught the difference between “good touch, bad touch.” A good way to teach this is by telling your child that no one should ever touch them in any area that a swimming suit covers. And nip secrecy in the bud by emphasizing that no one should ever ask a child to keep a secret from a parent. Instruct the child to tell you immediately if someone does so.
No parent wants to believe that their child is vulnerable to sexual abuse, but the statistics indicate otherwise. One in five children is sexually abused by the time they reach adulthood. Know the warning signs and what to help protect your child from becoming a statistic.
Article sources and links to more info:
Warning signs of sexual abuse often overlooked
Darkness to Light Foundation
Child Sexual Abuse: Please Act If You Suspect a Child Is at Risk
What to Do If Your Child Discloses Sexual Abuse
The US Department of Justice
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network