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Talking to Your Child About Sexual Abuse

Childhood should be about sweetness and light, not gloom and doom. So why broach the subject of something as awful as sexual abuse with your child? Why bring it up if it may never happen? Is it really necessary to make such a big deal about it?

You bet it is, for these reasons and more:

  • Without prior knowledge of what it is and how to recognize it, young children may not recognize their victimization as sexual abuse.
  • Kids often keep quiet about the abuse because they think disclosure will bring consequences even worse than being victimized again.
  • Children often get the feeling that something they did caused the abuse, and therefore think that something must be wrong with them or that it's their fault.

An estimated one out of five women and one out of 10 men report having been sexually abused in childhood, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). So if you think your child's safe or immune, think again. In fact, you owe it to your child - whether a toddler or teen - to talk about the subject and make sure he or she is informed.

What Is Sexual Abuse?
When children are sexually abused, they can be assaulted (or physically harmed) or exploited, which involves verbal or emotional abuse. The abusers, usually adults or older kids whom the child knows, will force, trick, bribe, threaten, or pressure the child into sexual activity. Such forms of sexual child abuse include:

  • sexual touching and fondling of a child
  • having the child touch the abuser's genitals or perform oral sexual acts on the abuser
  • forced or unforced vaginal or anal sexual intercourse with a child
  • exposure to adult sexual activity or pornographic movies or photos
  • having a child pose, undress, or perform in a sexual manner
  • spying on a child while she's in a bathroom or bedroom

Because most children are trusting and because they usually know the abuser, physical force is rarely needed. And kids are often taught to obey their elders, a lesson that perpetrators can use to their advantage.

Effects of Sexual Abuse on Children
Because physical evidence of sexual abuse is often absent or difficult to detect, concerned adults should be aware of unusual changes in behavior. A normally talkative child may become quiet and withdrawn, or a reticent child may suddenly exhibit promiscuous or sexually inappropriate behavior. A well-adjusted child may suddenly withdraw from those closest to him or her or become fearful of being with a particular person (who may be the abuser). A child who is being abused may even begin to abuse other children.

Children who have been sexually abused may also:

  • copy adult sexual behavior
  • insist on sexual play with other children, toys, pets, or themselves
  • display sexual knowledge beyond what's normal for their age or maturity level
  • have unexplained pain, swelling, or bleeding around the genitals or mouth
  • have urinary tract infections or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

Sexual abuse has been termed the "silent problem" because children often are either afraid to tell, having been threatened by the abuser to keep quiet, or are too young or too ashamed to put what has happened into words. They may be confused by the feelings that accompany the abuse, and they may blame themselves for it. Abuse also may betray their sense of trust, because it often involves telling on a loved one. If they can't tell their secret to those they trust, they may begin to think that they can't trust anyone and learn to repress their feelings. If they close themselves off, they may begin to feel helpless, which can have long-lasting effects on their future relationships, emotional health, and attainment of educational and career goals.

Another problem is that at first, particularly if the abuser is a loved one, some children may like the extra attention shown to them because it makes them feel special. And some children may feel guilty that they didn't initially resist. When they do want out, they may feel unable to act because they didn't say no at first. The child may also fear getting the abuser into trouble, or damaging or severing the relationship with an abusing loved one if he or she tells or resists - concerns that perpetrators often play upon to continue their control of the situation.

How Can I Talk to My Child?
As frightening as it may be, the reality is that you can never completely protect your child from sexual abuse. However, you can teach kids about it so that they'll be aware of what it is and how to protect themselves against it.

In a calm and caring manner, you'll want to give your child age-appropriate information to ensure the child's safety and well-being. Before getting into specifics, though, it's important to tell children that they're loved, valued, and deserves to be safe. Also, never tell them to "do anything an adult tells you to do."

When you're sure they understand, follow these guidelines with your child's level of understanding and maturity in mind.

When talking to preschoolers:

  • teach the proper names for body parts
  • tell them that their bodies belong to them and that no one has the right to touch their private parts or to hurt them in any way
  • tell them that this applies to everyone they knows and not just strangers
  • make sure they know it's OK to say no to anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, even if the request is from a relative or friend
  • tell them to tell to you if any adult asks them to keep a secret

When talking to grade-schoolers:

  • explain that some adults have problems, and if something feels wrong, it probably is
  • explain that some adults are confused about sex and sometimes they try to kiss, touch, or hug children in a way that makes kids feel uncomfortable
  • tell them to come to you even if they're afraid of what may happen, if it seems easier to try to forget about it, or if someone has threatened them not to tell
  • tell them you will believe them and protect them if they tell you about abuse and that you will never blame or be angry with them for doing so
  • give straightforward answers if they ask about sex
  • stress personal safety and encourage them to get away from the abuser as quickly and safely as possible

When talking to teenagers:

  • explain that sexual violence is any sexual act that breaks a person's trust or threatens his or her safety
  • discuss rape, date/acquaintance rape, sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy
  • tell them that nobody has the right to force them to do any act that they consider sexual (kissing, hugging, any contact with the breasts or genitals, sexual intercourse, etc.)
  • reiterate the importance of keeping their bodies safe, saying no, and telling an adult if something wrong or something that felt wrong has happened

Experts caution against using the "good touch-bad touch" explanation because young children tend to think of a "bad touch" as one that causes physical pain or involves hitting. Many types of sexual contact are not painful, do not cause injury, and may even "feel good" to the child. So instead, tell your child exactly what an "OK" touch might be - a pat on the back, a rub on the head, a high five, and so on. Ask your child to name some touches and let them know whether they're OK.

Here's something else to consider. When grandparents and other relatives come for a visit, hugs and kisses are expected. But many children don't want to get close right away - or at any point during the visit - and they shouldn't be forced to. This is another kind of violation of a child's private space. Tell your child that he or she doesn't have to hug or kiss anyone, even relatives, if he or she doesn't want to. Explain it to loved ones, too, and suggest that they break the ice by playing with your child first. That way, a hug may happen on its own, and the spontaneity can make it that much more special.

I Think My Child Is Being Abused - What Should I Do?
Keeping calm is key. When parents overact, kids may think they're angry at them instead of at what's happened to them.

Realize that talking about the abuse can be extremely difficult if a child has been sworn to secrecy. You may get an inkling from some vague statements in which the child hints about the abuse, or confides in a friend.

If you find out that your child is being abused, here's what you can do to help immediately:

  • Believe him or her. In most cases, kids do not lie about sexual abuse.
  • Tell your child you're proud of him or her for telling and that he or she is not to blame.
  • Protect your child's privacy. Don't tell people who don't need to know.
  • Report the abuse to the police or your local child protection service agency, no matter who the abuser is. If the suspected abuser is a member of your family, your state's department of protective services will be involved.
  • Never confront the offender in your child's presence. Let the police handle all contact with him or her.
  • Call your child's doctor. A medical exam may be needed to collect evidence and can determine whether your child may have any physical injuries that need care.

Some parents may find it difficult to accept that a family member or friend has abused their children in this way, especially if the abuser is a spouse or even a grandparent. Some parents may deny the truth - or perhaps even become angry with their children - because it is too painful for them to accept (perhaps because of their own history of abuse). But such a denial may do even more emotional harm to a child who has been sexually abused.

Getting Help
Sexual abuse must be reported to the police or your local child protective services agency, even if the offender is a close friend or relative. As quickly as possible, call your child's doctor and get a medical exam for evidence and assurance that there is no physical damage. In some cases, the doctor may refer your child to a specialist or a hospital-based sexual abuse diagnostic and management team for the examination. Ask your child's doctor or the sexual abuse specialists involved in the care of your child to recommend a mental health professional to whom you and/or your child can talk, or contact the agencies listed in Additional Resources for support groups and community service organizations.

Unfortunately, many sexually abused children never get the chance to tell. They live with shame and guilt for many years, and some become offenders as adults. With help, however, children who have been sexually abused can regain self-esteem, cope with guilt, and begin to heal.