Sexual abuse and children: do you know the warning signs?

For the past week the nation’s attention has been focused on the child sex abuse scandal engulfing Penn State’s football program. It’s a heartbreaking story that has triggered feelings of anger and horror in millions of people. It also has many parents wondering about the safety of their own children.

Unfortunately, sexual abuse of female and male children is more prevalent than many people realize and many cases go unreported. Children stay silent about their abuse for a number of different developmental, social or psychological factors.  In some instances the victim is too young or otherwise unable to tell anyone what has happened, and may have some confusion about what has taken place. Other times the child may be afraid their abuser will hurt them or their family if they tell anyone, or they are embarrassed, ashamed or blame themselves for what happened.

As troubling as it may sound, there are also many victims who never come forward because they are protecting the person who hurt them. It’s not unusual for the abuser to have a bond with the child so strong that the victim is unwilling to identify him or her for fear of getting the perpetrator in trouble. If the abuser is a person of high regard— like a respected authority figure, or popular coach or teacher—the victim may think no one will believe the story, or be angry with them for accusing a respected person.

“It’s disturbing, but important for parents to understand that perpetrators of sexual abuse often have a relationship with child victims,” says Amy Tishelman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of Research and Training in Children’s Hospital Boston’s Child Protection Program. “It is true in cases of incest but also often applies when the perpetrator is not part of the family.”

In addition to some victims’ silence, abuse can be difficult to recognize because it often leaves few or no physical signs. Children who have been sexually abused may show symptoms of stress that manifest as emotional, social, behavioral, academic or somatic changes, and they can be puzzling when an adult has no knowledge of the abuse.

Because there are no universal symptoms to indicate abuse has taken place, recognizing it can be difficult. At times, a child’s response to sexual abuse may be undetectable, or look like a normal reaction to stress. It’s important to remember that not all changes in behavior are an indication of abuse; they could be representative of any number of issues. If your child is displaying worrisome and sudden changes in behavior, social interaction or school performance, speak with her or him about it or reach out to a mental health or medical professional for help.

There’s no doubt that the stories coming out of Penn State are hard for many parents to read, but they could represent an opportunity to bring up an otherwise difficult topic with your own children. If you choose to do so, the conversation should be held at a developmentally appropriate level and done in a calm, non-threatening, manner.

“It is reasonable to give information about appropriate and inappropriate boundaries to children, as long as it is geared toward their level of understanding,” Tishelman says. “But it’s better not to discuss that information in a way that unduly upsets or frightens them.”

It is also important not to pressure a child to disclose abuse, even if you suspect something may have happened. Always refrain from making any assumptions, but if you have concerns that your child is not being open with you, the best step is to consult with a knowledgeable professional.

If your child opens up to you about abuse, you need to remain as calm as possible and listen to them. Once they’ve finished you should immediately contact your child’s pediatrician, a mental health professional, the police or your state’s child protective agency.

Interact personally with your child’s teacher, coaches and friends. A strong, visible parental presence is important for children’s safety.

“If your child tells you she or he has been abused it’s very natural to want to react in fear or fury, but for the sake of the child you need to try to do your best to remain centered, even though it can be devastating news,” Tishelman says. “After you’ve comforted your child, reached out for help and established that he or she is safe, find the support you need to let yourself process the events, preferably away from your child. It may be difficult to remain composed but it’s important so you are able to be sensitive to the needs of a child who may already be feeling extremely vulnerable.”

“When this happens, it’s also important for parents, themselves, to consider seeking help from a mental health or medical professional,” says Celeste Wilson, MD, child abuse pediatrician and Associate Medical Director of Children’s Child Protection Program. “These situations are traumatic for the entire family. Help should be available to parents as well as their children because in trying times you should not ignore your own thoughts and feelings about what has occurred.”

Sadly, child abuse can occur to any child, within any demographic group.  While there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ victim, data suggests that children who are perceived as vulnerable or isolated are sometimes targeted more. Because of this, parents should familiarize themselves with adults, older children and friends in their child’s life. Make face time with their teachers, coaches and friends’ parents and do it often. By increasing your interactions with your child’s social circle, you not only help reduce the risk of abuse, but strengthen the child’s network of support which can have a positive effect on many other aspects of development.

Still, no matter how vigilant you are, it is not always possible to recognize perpetrators of abuse. The sad reality is, no matter how proactive we are as parents, we can never fully shield our children from some dangers. Rather than dwell on what you can’t do, experts suggest focusing your efforts on the things you can do to help keep your children safe. Tishelman and Wilson recommend the following:

  • Maintain open and developmentally appropriate communication with your child about a wide range of topics.
  • Make sure your child is appropriately supervised. (This will vary with age and setting.)
  • Be aware of significant and unexpected changes in your child, including a substantial shift in: behavior, mood, health, social relationships and academic performance. These changes can take a wide variety of forms like avoidance of places, activities or people, dressing differently, acting out at school or at home, trouble paying attention, a decline in grades, social withdrawal, moodiness, sleeping and eating changes, substance use and even engaging in developmentally unusual sexual behaviors.
  • Changes in a child’s functioning can be related to abuse, but also to a variety of other child-related issues.  Because of these variances it’s important not to assume your child has been abused without specific information. If you are worried, you can consider consulting a professional for advice.
  • When bringing up concerns about abuse with your child, it is important to be careful how you word things. Try to tackle the issue in way that doesn’t pressure or confuse them. Always ask general, open-ended questions rather than leading ones. Phrasings like, ‘is anything upsetting you?’ are appropriate because they are more broad-based.

Your children should know that you are available to talk anytime they are upset about something. As parents it is our job to protect our children; they need to be fully aware of that and understand that you will not be angry with them when they open up to you, even if they tell you about upsetting things.

“Even if you have a strong relationship with your child, it’s possible that your child will not be ready or able to disclose abuse right after it happens,” Tishelman says. “If you are in doubt, the best step is to contact a knowledgeable professional or organization in your community for consultation.”

2 thoughts on “Sexual abuse and children: do you know the warning signs?

  1. Also don’t forget sometimes the abuser is closer than you think. It can be a parent even. That is when the victim is less likely to say anything cause of fear of retaliation and more abuse from parents, but also they are told that it happens to every child their age by their parent(s).

    Remember it doesn’t end for the victim even when the abuser is caught or persecuted. It is a life time ordeal but it does get better with time.

  2. I really like it that you place such an important role of parents in cases of abuse.  I have seen time and again many parents blaming schools, teachers, etc. when they were not there for their kids in the first place. 

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