The 10 Warning Signs of Child Sexual Abuse
And how you can protect your child against predators.
-Dr. Anne K. Gross
If there is one lesson to be learned from the Penn State scandal, it’s that we all need to be pro-active when it comes to child sexual abuse. Not only did Jerry Sandusky allegedly abuse young boys in his care for years, but people in positions of power – from the head coach, the campus police, and the athletic director, to name a few – turned their heads the other way, allowing this despicable behavior to continue. And lest we think this is an isolated case, let’s not forget the decades long scandal of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), an astounding one in four girls, and one is six boys, will be sexually abused or assaulted before age 18, and 90 percent of the time that abuse is at the hands of somebody the child knows – a trusted teacher, coach, relative, or neighbor. Coupled with the fact that those in positions of power often cover-up the behavior of their colleagues, these staggering statistics leave parents feeling powerless and frightened.
Fortunately there are things we can do to safeguard our children. First and foremost, we have to talk about these issues, for getting the conversation going lessons our shame, prompts us to be more aware and report instances of abuse. In the week following the Penn State revelation, calls to sexual abuse hotlines significantly increased, with some experiencing twice the average volume.
To bring the issue of child sexual abuse out of the closet, we need to be cognizant not only of the warning signs in our child, but of the inappropriate behavior of adults with whom our child interacts. Let’s look at both of these separately.
Worrisome changes in your child’s behavior:
According to the NSVRC, the following symptoms may indicate your child is being sexually abused:
1. Headaches, stomach aches, or fatigue
2. Sleep problems such as nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep
3. Change in appetite or eating habits
4. Mood swings, such as unexplained bursts of anger or fear
5. Depressive symptoms, including loss of interest in activities that used to give your child pleasure
6. Decline in school performance
7. Increased references to sexual behavior. A young child may re-enact sexual behavior in her dolls, or name their sexual parts; an older child might use developmentally advanced language to describe sexual acts
8. Erratic behavior or talk of cutting or burning herself
9. Fear of being touched, or not wanting to be alone with somebody, such as a babysitter
10. Change in body image
When your child experiences some of the above symptoms, talk to her. You might say, “You’ve had trouble sleeping (eating, finishing your homework, etc.), is there something on your mind? Can I help?” Or, “I’m concerned that you don’t seem like your usual self. Is something bothering you?”
If at any time you suspect abuse, call the police or the department of social services. If you’re not sure what to do, call the HERO Hotline (1-877-874-HERO), where you can speak to a sexual abuse counselor.
When adult behavior is inappropriate:
Parents should also be on the alert for any inappropriate behavior on the part of adults with whom their child interacts. According to the NSVRC, be concerned if an adult initiates and encourages physical contact, such as hugging, or wants to spend time alone with your child outside of the normally prescribed activities, such as a coach who offers to drive your child home. Perpetrators of child sexual abuse are also known to lavish special gifts, including money, or being overly attentive by sending notes or messages through social media.
According to the NSVRC, if you see any of the above behavior talk to the adult, or his superior, in question. Without being hostile or accusatory, express your concerns regarding his inappropriate behavior, and ask that it stop. If, based on the conversation, you don’t believe your child is in danger, continue to monitor the situation carefully. If at any point you suspect abuse or feel that your child is unsafe, immediately call the appropriate authority.
One final piece of advice: trust your child as well as your own intuitions. If your child tells you something doesn’t feel right – that he feels uncomfortable around a certain person, or suddenly wants to never see a babysitter again, listen to her. By letting her know that it is safe to talk, you are setting the stage for her to continue to confide in you. Likewise, as parents, don’t dismiss your intuitions as well, for we undeniably know our children better than anybody else. If you have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, there is a good chance you’re on to something.
As parents, it’s easy to feel a sense of powerlessness when it comes to protecting our children from the outside world, especially with something as frightening as sexual abuse. But if we are aware of the signs, and are willing to take appropriate action and look to outside resources for help, we can go a long way in protecting our children.
Anne K. Gross, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who writes regularly for BettyConfidential on personal growth and relationships. You can follow her blog Opening Doors to Intimacy.