Part One: Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse

“As much as we’d like to put our kids in a bubble, it’s not possible. Actually sitting down and having that uncomfortable conversation with your kid is going to help prevent things in the long run because they are going to understand that you are a safe person to talk to and you aren’t going to freak out that they’ve said the word sex to you because you brought it to them first.” ~Katelyn Brewer

The staggering truth is that 1 in 10 children experience child sexual abuse. It is highly likely that each of us knows a child who has been or is being abused. What are the warning signs? What can parents do to protect their child(ren) and prevent sexual abuse? What can we do if we know a child is being sexually abused–is help available? I will attempt to answer all of these questions and more in my two-part blog post on Children and Sexual Abuse.

According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 60 percent of child victims are sexually abused by the people a family trusts and nearly 40 percent of child victims are abused by older or more powerful children. The greatest risk to children for sexual abuse is not from strangers, but from friends and family. People who abuse children often appear trustworthy and/or are in positions or situations where they interact regularly with children or a particular child. The likelihood of sexual abuse happening by someone we know is greater than by a stranger. Therefore, it is expedient that we are vigilant in preparing and protecting our children. Here’s how:

Know the signs.

When a child or teen is abused, they are changed mentally, physically, emotionally, and every other imaginable way. If we are paying attention, we will notice certain changes in emotions and behavior that are common signs of abuse. If a child is acting unusual and something seems wrong, try talking to them to find out what is happening in their life. If they do not divulge anything, look for other signs and behaviors which include but are not limited to the following: Anxiety, chronic stomach pain, headaches; sexual behavior and language that is not age appropriate; nightmares, bedwetting, falling grades, cruelty to animals, bullying, being bullied, fire setting, running away from home, and any kind of self-harm; use of alcohol or drugs at an early age; perfectionism, withdrawal, fear, depression, unexplained anger, and rebelliousness. My good friend was abused as a child and she said her father commented that she was always a “happy little girl.” With the hindsight he has now, he reports that always being happy is not normal adolescent behavior. If a child is not expressing a healthy range of emotions, there is potentially an underlying problem. 

Be involved in the child’s life.

Being actively involved in a child’s life can make warning signs of sexual abuse more obvious and also help the child feel more comfortable coming to us if something is not right in their life. Here are simple yet powerful ways we can be involved our children’s lives:

  • Know the warning signs. By simply being familiar with the warning signs listed above, we are preparing to protect our children. Becoming familiar with the warning signs will help us notice any changes with our children, no matter how small.
  • Show interest in their day-to-day lives. Ask them what they did during the day and who they did it with. Who did they sit with at lunchtime? What games did they play after school? Did they enjoy themselves?
  • Get to know the people in their life. We must know who our children are spending time with. Ask children about the kids they go to school with, the parents of their friends, and other people they may encounter, such as teammates or coaches. If we talk about these people openly and ask questions, our children will feel comfortable with the topic.
  • Choose caregivers carefully. Whether it is a babysitter, a new school, a daycare, a nanny, or an after school activity, be diligent about screening caregivers for children. Insist on screenings that include criminal background checks, personal interviews, and professional recommendations for all adults who serve children. Avoid programs that do not use ALL of these methods.
  • Talk about the media. Incidents of sexual violence are frequently covered by the news and portrayed in television shows. We can ask our children questions about these stories to start a conversation. Questions like, “Have you ever heard of this happening before?” or “What would you do if you were in this situation?” can signal to our children that these are important issues that they can always discuss with us.
  • Be available. It is so important that we set aside time to spend with our children where they have our undivided attention. By establishing this trust we can show our children that they can come to us if they have questions or if someone is treating them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. As we consistently make the effort to designate undivided time with our children to talk about anything from inconsequential to highly sensitive, we will create a trusting, safe space for our children.
  • Let them know they will not get in trouble. Many perpetrators use secret-keeping or threats as a way of keeping children quiet about abuse. We must remind our children frequently that they will not get in trouble for talking to us, no matter what they need to say. When they do come to us, follow through on this promise and avoid punishing them for speaking up.

What should we do if we suspect or know a child is being or has been abused?

  • Call 911 if there is any immediate threat of danger.
  • To report child abuse, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 or your state agency.
  • Seek mental and emotional help for the child right away. If he/she can get guidance from a trained, certified professional, it will greatly aid in their progress and future wellbeing.

In two weeks, I will share part two of this post where I give advice about conversations parents can have with their children to prepare and protect them, as well as what can be said to a child who has been abused. I take this topic very seriously, and want to urge my readers to be careful and vigilant with their precious children. Unfortunately, the world we live in can be unsafe, and sexual abuse happens more frequently than we would like to accept. We cannot assume it will not happen to our children. We must safeguard our family members and do what we can to protect our young ones. Please know my door is open for anyone who may be experiencing this topic firsthand. Do not hesitate to reach out for assistance. Click here to contact me today.

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.

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Melissa Cluff, MS, LMFT, CSAT

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.