Sexual abuse of children is a grim fact of life in our society. It
is more common than most people realize. Some surveys say that at
least 1 out of 5 women and 1 out of 10 men recall sexual abuse in
childhood. Parents need not feel helpless about the problem. The
American Academy of Pediatrics provides the following information
to help prevent child sexual abuse.
WHAT IS CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE?
It is any sexual act with a child that is performed by an adult or
an older child. Such acts include fondling the child's genitals,
getting the child to fondle an adult's genitals, mouth to genital
contact, rubbing an adult's genitals on the child, or actually
penetrating the child's vagina or anus. Other, often overlooked,
forms of abuse occur. These include an adult showing his or her
genitals to a child, showing the child obscene pictures or
videotapes, or using the child to make obscene materials.
COULD MY CHILD BE SEXUALLY ABUSED?
Boys and girls are most often abused by adults or older children
whom they know and who can control them. The offender is known by
the victim in 8 out of 10 reported cases. The offender is often an
authority figure whom the child trusts or loves. Almost always the
child is convinced to engage in sex by means of persuasion, bribes
HOW WOULD I KNOW IF MY CHILD IS BEING SEXUALLY ABUSED?
You hope that if your child is abused, the child will tell you or
someone else about the abuse. Yet, children who are being abused
often have been convinced by the abuser that they must not tell
anyone about it. A child's first statements about abuse may be
sketchy and incomplete. He may only hint about the problem. Some
abused children may tell friends about the abuse. A child who is
told about or sees abuse in another child may tell an adult.
Parents need to be aware of behavioral changes that may signal
this problem. The following symptoms may suggest sexual abuse:
--striking, exceptional fear of a person or certain places,
--an uncalled-for response from a child when the child is asked if he has
been touched by someone,
--unreasonable fear of a physical exam,
--drawings that are scary or use a lot of black and red,
--abrupt change in conduct of any sort,
--sudden awareness of genitals and sexual acts and words, and
--attempts to get other children to perform sexual acts.
Physical signs of abuse include sexually transmitted diseases,
such as gonorrhea or herpes. In an exam, a doctor may notice
genital or anal changes indicative of abuse.
IF MY CHILD REVEALS SEXUAL ABUSE, WHAT SHOULD I DO?
Above all, take it seriously, but stay calm. Many children who
report abuse are not believed. When a child's plea is ignored, she
may not risk telling again. As a result, the child could be
victimized for months or years. Millions of children have had
their lives torn apart by ongoing sexual abuse. Make sure you help
your child understand that the abuse is not his or her fault. Give
lots of love and comfort. If you are angry, don't let your child
see it--you do not want the child to think the anger is aimed at
her. Let the child know how brave she was to tell you. This is
most important if the child has been abused by a close relative or
a family friend. Then, tell someone yourself. Get help. Talk to
your child's doctor, a counselor, a policeman, a child protective
service worker, or a teacher.
CAN I DEAL WITH SEXUAL ABUSE IN MY FAMILY WITHOUT CONTACTING THE AUTHORITIES?
It is difficult for parents to stop sexual abuse without help from experts.
The hard but healthy way to deal with the problem is:
1. Face the issue.
2. Take charge of the situation.
3. Work to avoid future abuse.
4. Discuss it with your pediatrician, who can provide support and counseling.
5. Report abuse to your local child protection service agency and ask about
crisis support help.
Talking about sexual abuse can be very hard for the child who has
been told not to tell by a trusted adult. It can be just as hard
for adults if the abuser is close to them. Still, the abuse should
be reported to your local child protection agency or your doctor.
It is the best thing to do for both the child and the family.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE CHILD AND THE OFFENDER IF SEXUAL ABUSEIS REPORTED?
Cases are checked by the police or a social service agency that
looks into reports of suspected child abuse. With the help of a
doctor, the police or social service will decide whether sexual
abuse has taken place. Sometimes, the police will let social
services handle the case. This may occur if the child is not
physically abused and the abuser is a family member. When a child
is abused by a non-family member, the matter is usually handled by
the police. After the case is reported, what happens depends on
the circumstances. The degree of risk of additional abuse to the
child is of first concern to the authorities. The offender or the
entire family may be required to attend a treatment program. In
some cases, the offender may face criminal charges. If the child's
safety is in question, he may be removed from the home. In any
event, the child and family will need a great deal of support from
relatives and friends.
For further information on child sexual abuse and other forms of
abuse, write to
The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse,
P.O. Box 2866,
Your pediatrician understands the importance of communication
between parents and children. Your doctor is trained to detect the
signs of child sexual abuse. Ask your pediatrician for advice on
ways to protect your children.
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