Preventing the Sexual Abuse of Children
The sexual abuse of children can be a scary and challenging topic to discuss, especially for parents. But the fact is, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old. And startling statistics like that mean we MUST talk about it in order to make a difference.
What is child sexual abuse?
First and foremost, it's helpful to have a clear understanding of what sexual abuse is. According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, child sexual abuse includes the employment, use, persuasion, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, ANY sexually explicit conduct. It includes rape, molestation and prostitution of children, but also includes things like using sexually explicit language to scare or threaten a child, showing a child pornography or using email or the Internet to communicate with a child in sexually explicit ways.
Another critical fact to understand is that the sexual abuse of children happens EVERYWHERE. It crosses ALL ethnic, religious, economic and regional boundaries. The offender is often an adult, but can be another (often older) child, too.
The vast majority of sexual offenders are someone the child and his or her family already knows and trusts, which is why it is so critical that parents and other caregivers know about prevention and signs of abuse.
How can we PREVENT child sexual abuse?
The first step to working to protect your children from sexual abuse is being proactive and opening the lines of communication with your kids. Talk to your children about sexual abuse in age-appropriate ways. Teach them about their bodies, how to respect them, and that it is “against the rules” for adults to act in sexual ways or touch special parts of their bodies. Tell them that if someone makes them feel anxious, sad angry, or confused that they can talk to you about it and you will listen.
Children often feel more comfortable telling someone other than a parent (often because the abuser is a trusted friend or family member), so also be sure your children are aware of the professional adults in their lives such as guidance counselors, school social workers or pediatricians to whom they could speak if something is bothering them.
One of the most effective ways to prevent sexual abuse is by carefully considering the safety of ANY activity where your child will be alone with another adult. This includes things like time spent with a babysitter, a sports practice with a coach or a one-on-one church activity. These one adult-one child events are where the majority of sexual abuse occurs. Remember that most abusers try to form trusting relationships with children AND parents first, so even someone you would never suspect could be an abuser. 93% of abusers are trusted family members, friends or acquaintances.
If you do allow your child time alone with an adult, plan to drop in unexpectedly. When scheduling the event with the other adult, confirm that the time will be spent in public places, and be sure to talk with your child when he or she comes back. Limit these one-on-one experiences and you can dramatically reduce the risk for sexual abuse.
If your child attends a summer camp, daycare, church school or other program where he or she could be alone with adults at any time, ask about and insist on screenings such as criminal background checks, interviews and professional references for adults who serve your children. But also remember that just because an adult has passed a background check does NOT mean that sexual abuse is not a possibility. You should STILL take precautions when it comes to leaving your child alone with another adult!
Another creative prevention tip is to openly discuss with the adults in your child's life that you have talked to them about sexual abuse, that your child is very open with you and that your child is well aware of the need for privacy and boundaries and knows that they have the right to stop any behavior that makes them sad, afraid, uncomfortable or angry.
How can I RECOGNIZE child sexual abuse?
Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common, but bleeding, redness, rashes or other ailments in the genital area as well as urinary tract infections can occur. Other physical signs include trouble sitting or walking. If a child DOES have physical signs you suspect to be caused by abuse, have them examined by a doctor immediately.
The more common physical signs are actually symptoms associated with anxiety and trauma, such as headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, nightmares and bedwetting.
Emotional/behavioral signs are much more common than physical signs, and can vary greatly. Some children become depressed and withdraw, often acting clingy or anxious. Others act out or regress developmentally and seem to lose abilities they once had, such as potty training and language skills. Some become perfectionists, while others begin to do poorly in school or in activities such as sports.
Keep in mind that any drastic behavior changes can be a sign that something is bothering a child, whether it be sexual abuse or any number of other types of trauma. The important thing is these changes are a cry for help and should be addressed.
One of the most obvious signs of sexual abuse can be sudden sexual behaviors in a child, such as use of sexual language, promiscuity, or knowledge of adult sexual behavior that's not appropriate for the child's age.
Also be aware if your child suddenly exhibits a fear of certain places, activities or--especially--certain people. Ask them about their feelings, listen to their concerns and talk openly about it.
Remember that some children show NO SIGNS of sexual abuse, which is why it is critical for adults to be alert and pay close attention to where their children are, whom they are with and how they behave after these activities.
How should I REACT to child sexual abuse?
First, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS! If you have even a small suspicion of sexual abuse, take action. If it is someone else's child, make a report. You only need suspicion to make a report, and not proof!
Second, BELIEVE the child if they open up to you. Young children very rarely make up stories about sexual abuse, and they often disclose it accidentally the first time. Keep in mind that it is not your responsibility to investigate. You should focus on the safety of the child!
So if a child tells you about abuse, remain calm. A child needs a responsible, composed adult who is a source of comfort. They want--and need--someone who is willing to listen without being overly emotional or negative. Think about how difficult and scary it would be for a child to talk about sexual abuse, especially when you consider that they probably have very little knowledge or understanding of sexual activity other than fear, and that their abuser is most likely a friend or family member.
Keep in mind that your response can have a huge impact on their future willingness to trust others and talk more about the abuse. They may also fear what will happen as a result of their disclosure, especially if they feel like the abuse is their own fault, or if the perpetrator is a family member or friend. Reassure the child that they have done the right thing by telling you.
Do not make promises you can't keep. Instead, focus on saying things like:
- “What happened was not your fault.”
- “We are going to work on a plan to try and help make sure you are safe.”
- “You did the right thing by telling me this.”
If it is your own child, sit down and talk with them when the suspected abuser is NOT present. Keep in mind sexual abusers often manipulate and threaten their victims, make them feel guilty, and confuse them about what is right and wrong. Victims feel uncertain about what the right thing to do really is.
The most important thing to remember is that it is OUR responsibility as adults to protect children from sexual abuse. No matter how many times a child has been told to talk to someone if something bad happens, they still might be too frightened, embarrassed or angry to do so on their own. So be aware of the children in your life, as well as the adults whom they interact with on a regular basis. Be open to discussing uncomfortable issues with your child, and consider their safety and feelings when making decisions about the people they spend time with.
Thinking about child sexual abuse--not to mention talking about it--might seem like it's just too difficult. But as parents, we can work to prevent abuse AND equip our kids with the opportunities to be heard, and the safety they deserve.
Remember, we need to pause for our children. No matter how fast the world might be moving around us, it’s critical that we pay attention and listen to the kids in our lives. Take time out of your busy schedule to focus on your children, and know that it's okay to ask for help!
If you’d like more information about how Children’s Advocacy Centers respond to identified victims of child sexual abuse, please visit www.centerforalexandriaschildren.org. And for a list of children’s advocacy center’s in your area, visit www.nationalchildrensalliance.org.