Written by Rachel Morici-Leirer, LPC
April is national child abuse prevention month. Children are the most vulnerable, least powerful, and least likely to be able to protect themselves from a powerful adult. READ below in order to educate yourself and learn HOW TO TAKE A STAND & help prevent this abuse.
First, it is important to become aware of the facts about child abuse: Let the reality of these facts influence your decisions regarding children and safety:
- 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will have been sexually abused by their eighteenth birthday. Consider this the next time you walk through a mall or down a street and see several or many children.
- Only 1 in 10 children reports the abuse themselves. Those children who keep the abuse a secret or who tell and are not believed are far more likely to suffer psychological, emotional, social, and/or physical problems that will most likely follow them into adulthood.
- 22% of abused children are under 8 years old.
- The average age of abused children is 9.
- Most likely, you know a child who either has been or is being abused.
It is also likely that you know an abuser! Most are not “strangers,” but are our friends and family members.
- 34% of victims are abused by family members.
- 59% are abused by people the family judges to be trustworthy. In fact, it is a common tactic of abusers to first establish a trusting relationship with the parents of the child.
- Many young children are abused by larger, older children.
- Those who abuse children have no characteristics that “set them apart” for us to identify them as abusers. They look and act just like us and go out of their way to appear trustworthy.
- Those who sexually abuse children are drawn to places where they will have easy access to children (and are often those we judge to be “wonderful” with children) such as sports leagues, faith centers, clubs, and schools. It is important to be sure that the clubs, leagues, etc., where your child is involved has a policy about doing background checks on its volunteers.
So, what can we do as parents to prevent abuse? Here are 4 tips that will dramatically decrease risk:
Communicate openly about risks. Directly discuss this topic with your children. With the knowledge that children often keep abuse a secret, we can open up that communication by being a safe person to talk to, by openly talking about what abuse is and by offering options to kids on where to go for help.
Understand WHY kids don’t tell. They are afraid to disappoint parents. They often are threatened by the abuser. Many kids are ashamed about what happened. When children are very young, they are often told by the abuser that the abuse is “okay” or it’s a “game.”
Be aware of how children communicate. Children will shut down if you respond negatively or emotionally. Be calm and strong. Let kids know that it is your job as the adult to protect them. Listen quietly.
TEACH your child about her body, about what abuse is and, if age-appropriate, about sex. Teach her words that help her discuss sex comfortably with you.
Teach your child that it is against the “rules” for adults to act in a sexual way with children and use examples. Start early and talk often. Use everyday opportunities to talk about sexual abuse.
Be aware of the Signs. Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common, although redness, rashes, or swelling in the genital area, urinary tract infections, or other such symptoms should be carefully investigated. Also, physical problems associated with anxiety, such as chronic stomach pain or headaches, may occur.
Emotional or behavioral signals are more common. These can run from “too perfect” behavior, to withdrawal and depression, to unexplained anger and rebellion.
Sexual behavior and language that are not age-appropriate can be a red flag.
Be aware that in some children there are no signs whatsoever.
RESOURCE: If you find physical signs that you suspect as sexual abuse, have the child physically examined immediately by a professional who specializes in child sexual abuse. If you need to report suspected child abuse or neglect, contact your county of residence Child Protection Helpline or call the National Children’s Alliance at 1-800-239-9950. Read below for more information.
Make a Plan then offer support if you become aware of a child being abused. Don’t overreact. Just as you stay calm when your child breaks an arm and follow a plan you’ve made in advance for such emergencies, stay calm and follow a plan if your child reports abuse.
If you react with anger or disbelief, the response from the child may be the following:
- The child shuts down.
- The child changes his story in the face of your anger and disbelief, when, in fact, abuse may actually be occurring.
- The child changes his account around your questions so future tellings appear to be “coached.” This can be very harmful if the case goes to court.
- The child feels even more guilty.
Note: VERY few reported incidents are false.
It’s very important to think through your emotional response before you’re in a position where you suspect abuse. Hopefully, you’ll never need to use the skills, but you will be prepared to respond in a supportive way if the need arises.
- Believe the child and make sure he knows it.
- Don’t ask questions. This could be confusing to the child, make her upset, and could damage criminal prosecution of the offender.
- Assure the child that it’s your job to protect him and that you’ll do everything you can for him.
- Report in all cases of suspected abuse, whether inside or outside the family. The child’s safety is much more important than any emotional conflict you may have to face. Remember: you are the adult.
- Don’t panic. Sexually abused children who receive psychological help can and do heal.
(Information gathered from: Kids First Inc., 2017)
When would it be appropriate to call Child Protective Services? Often times, we do not trust our “gut” feelings even though they are usually correct. If you suspect something, act on your suspicions. It’s important to understand that your job is not to investigate a concern. CPS will do this.
A child cannot afford for you to take the chance that it is wrong. If you are still reluctant, please call one of the following:
- The National Children’s Alliance at 1-800-239-9950
- From Darkness to Light at 1-866-367-5444.
- Childhelp USA Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.
*Remember that Child Protective Services is NOT the police. If you become aware of a child in immediate danger, contact your local police right away.
- Physical abuse. Does the child have signs of injury or do you believe there’s imminent threat of violence?
- Sexual abuse. Have you seen certain behavioral signs, like flinching or raising of hands in a defense manner? Do you suspect some kind of sexually abusive or exploitative behavior?
- Neglect. Does the child in question live in an unlivable environment? Are they left alone for long periods of time without proper care?
- Witnessing domestic violence. Has the child been witness to physical violence?
*Remember that you can call anonymously. Many cases aren’t reported because callers worry about retaliation from unfit parents who may also be dangerous individuals. Most states allow you to report cases anonymously. You might have to provide your name and address for a follow-up, but it won’t be disclosed. Ask to remain anonymous.
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Break the cycle of silence.
If you were a victim of sexual abuse, consider using your personal story to break the silence and reach others about the effects of abuse.
Let’s prevent further abuse and allow for healing. You can make the difference!