April is Child Abuse Prevention Month – a time to recognize that we each play a part in promoting the social and emotional well-being of children and families in communities.
Sexual abuse is a difficult subject for most people to discuss, and especially difficult for parents to discuss with their children. But as frightening as the topic may be, sexual abuse is a serious and, unfortunately, common problem that affects both boys and girls, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes.
In most cases, the person who sexually abuses a child is an adult or older child known to the victim, often an authority figure that the child knows, trusts or loves.
The offender usually uses coercion and manipulation, not physical force, to engage the child.
What parents should know about child sexual abuse:
• Most offenders are known to the child; they may be family members, relatives, friends, teachers, coaches, babysitters and others in positions of authority.
• Children most susceptible to sexual abuse have obedient, compliant and respectful personalities. They may be children from unhappy or broken homes, as these youngsters may be eager for attention and affection.
• Children who are victims of sexual abuse can display many or few behavioral symptoms. They may withdraw from family or friends, display poor school performance, experience depression, anxiety, or exhibit aggressive and self-destructive behavior. Or they may not display any outward abnormal behavior.
• Child sexual abuse often involves more than a single incident, and can go on for months or years.
• Sexual abuse includes any kind of sexual act or behavior with a child, and includes activities involving genital contact as well as non-contact events such as showing pornographic images to children, taking pornographic photographs of a child, etc.
Reducing the risk
AAP offers these tips for reducing your child’s risk for becoming a victim of sexual molestation:
• In early childhood, parents can teach their children the name of the genitals, just as they teach their child names of other body parts. This teaches that the genitals, while private, are not so private that you can’t talk about them.
• Parents can teach young children about the privacy of body parts, and that no one has the right to touch their bodies if they don’t want that to happen. Children should also learn to respect the right to privacy of other people.
• Teach children early and often that there are no secrets between children and their parents, and that they should feel comfortable talking with their parent about anything – good or bad, fun or sad, easy or difficult.
• Be aware of adults who offer children special gifts or toys, or adults who want to take your child on a “special outing” or to special events.
• Enroll your child in daycare and other programs that have a parent “open door” policy. Monitor and participate in activities whenever possible.
• As children age, create an environment at home in which sexual topics can be discussed comfortably. Use news items and publicized reports of child sexual abuse to start discussions of safety, and reiterate that children should always tell a parent about anyone who is taking advantage of them sexually.
• If your child discloses any history of sexual abuse, listen carefully, and take his or her disclosure seriously. Too often, children are not believed, particularly if they implicate a family member as the perpetrator. Contact your pediatrician, the local child protection service agency or the police. If you don’t intervene, the abuse might continue, and the child may come to believe that home is not safe and that you are not available to help.
• Support your child and let him or her know that he or she is not responsible for the abuse.
• Bring your child to a physician for a medical examination, to ensure that the child’s physical health has not been affected by the abuse.
• Most children and their families will also need professional counseling to help them through this ordeal, and your pediatrician can refer you to community resources for psychological help.
If you have concerns that your child may be a victim of sexual abuse, you should talk with your pediatrician, who can discuss your concerns, examine your child and make necessary referrals and reports.