The sexual abuse of children is usually a recurring abuse by someone the child knows. Children usually have difficulty telling about the abuse and sometimes do not even know how to describe it, and thus surrounding adults – parents, teachers, etc., play a big role in exposing the abuse.
Like in other situations, your degree of familiarity with the child will help you notice if they are in distress. Sharp mood changes or inability to function signify distress (not just sexual abuse), which requires further examination.
It is important to note that the signs of sexual abuse are different from child to child according to age, maturity, etc. However, there are signs that if a number of them are expressed over a period of time, can hint at sexual assault or abuse in children. In every suspected case of sexual abuse it is suggestable to consult the relevant professionals immediately (Rape Crisis Centers, Welfare Workers, Psychologists, Counselors, etc.).
Please note – educational and care professionals are obligated to report suspected incidents of child abuse to the police or welfare workers immediately.
Signs of sexual abuse can be physical, emotional or behavioral:
Emotional: worsening of the child’s mental state, depression or anxiety with no clear explanation, self-harm and/or attempted suicide, nightmares, need for self-isolation and control, higher dependency on an adult, low self-esteem.
Behavioral: Abnormal behavior including reluctance to try new things, attention and concentration deficits that were not there in the past, lowered ability to function in school, seclusion and solitude, tantrums and anxiety, disconnected (daydreaming), dependence, suicidal tendencies, refusing to take part in sporty activities and avoiding clothes which expose the body. Additionally, aversion to touch or a developed sexual knowledge for their age, and inappropriate sexual behavior for their age (for example sexual behavior while playing or in social interactions).
Physical: Eating disorders, trouble sleeping, head and stomach aches, bedwetting, urinary tract infections, unexplained bruising.
Remember! These are just signs, and the presence of one or more of them does not prove sexual abuse. If you suspect something is wrong with the child, talk to them: believe them and encourage them to share, make sure they know it is not their fault if they are being abused. It is important to let the child know you are there to listen and want to hear everything, it won’t bother you and they can feel comfortable with you.
There are children who have been heavily exposed to sexual content and stimuli, and are thus flooded with feelings, thoughts and are engaged in sex. This can be caused by exposure to pornography or sexual content on the internet, television, pictures, reading, etc., as well as exorbitant talk about sex at home. This kind of exposure can lead a child to sexually abuse others, and exposes them to abuse, because it becomes a major theme in their life.
How can you help a child who has been abused?
Children who are sexually abused turn to us "their adults" to help them understand the meaning of what happened to them. Discovering that your child has been sexually abused can be very difficult as parents. It is recommended to consult a professional – your local rape crisis center, a welfare worker, a psychologist or counselor for support and assistance for your child. Below are a few pointers to help you help them:
- It is important to project a sense of control over the situation, as well as a sense of hope, that you love them and will help them.
- Do not waste energy blaming the abuser – your child needs a strong, functional parent who can handle the situation and protect them.
- It is important to check how your child understands what happened to them and for you to accept their perspective. Do not try to convince them that nothing happened or, even worse – that their life is ruined.
- Protect them, give them the assistance and support they need and ask for, especially during the period of time right after the abuse. Don't force them to go back to normal immediately.
- Don't blame them! "Why didn't you run away? How could you not know? What did you do to cause this?" These questions are judgmental and blaming and have no place in the discussion about the abuse.
- Don't lessen the meaning of the sexual abuse by calling it "child's play", or saying that "boys will be boys". Don't underestimate your child or the severity of their injury even if there was no serious physical harm: feelings of humiliation, shame and helplessness also constitute substantial damage.
- Share with a professional: a teacher, psychologist or welfare worker. You don't have to deal with the questions and emotions alone. Provide your child the professional treatment that is right for them – both you and they deserve it.
- Teach your children how to protect themselves: how to identify a dangerous situation and how to distance themselves from it or tell an adult.
- Don't be embarrassed to use your parental authority! Monitor what movies and TV shows they watch, and what internet sites they visit. You can block them from visiting certain sites or watching certain TV stations as well as monitor what content your children consume. Children need protection from stimuli that they aren't able to cope with.
- Be available to your children so they can turn to you when they are in trouble.
- A child who was sexually abused requires constant supervision: strict supervision will help them restrain themselves, and protect them and their environment.