Children and Sexual Abuse

Children and Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse has been reported up to 80,000 times a year, but the number of unre­ported instances is far greater be­cause the children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened, and the legal procedure of validating an episode is difficult. Without identifica­tion of the problem, termination of the abuse, and professional help, the long-term emotional and psychologi­cal damage can be devastating.

Sexual abuse of children can take place within the family, by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative; or outside the home, for example, by a friend, neighbor, child care person, teacher or random molester. Wherever the sexual abuse has occurred, the child develops a variety of distressing feelings and thoughts.

No child is psychologically equipped to handle repeated sexual stimulation. Even a two- or three-year-old, who cannot know the sexual activity is “wrong,” will develop prob­lems resulting from the inability to cope with the over-stimulation.

The child of five or older, who knows and cares for the abuser, becomes trapped between his or her affection for the person and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members, or may be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told.

A child who is the victim of pro­longed sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthless­ness, and an abnormal perspective on sexuality. The child may become distrustful of adults, and could be­come suicidal.

Some children who have been sexually abused have difficulty relating to others except on sexual terms. Many sexually abused children be­come child abusers or prostitutes, or have other serious problems when they reach adulthood.

Often there are no physical signs of child abuse, or signs that only a physi­cian could detect, such as changes in the genital or anal areas.

The behavior of sexually abused children may include:

  • Unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature; ‘Sleep problems or nightmares;
  • Depression or withdrawal from friends or family;
  • Seductiveness;
  • Statements that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or fear that there is something wrong with them in the genital area;
  • Refusal to go to school, or delin­quency;
  • Secretiveness;
  • Aspects of sexual molestation in drawings, games, fantasies;
  • Suicidal behavior;
  • Other radical behavior changes.

Because child sexual abusers can make the child extremely fearful of “telling,” a child must be assured that they can talk freely. Adults, because of their maturity and knowledge, are always the ones to blame when they abuse children. The abused child should never be blamed.

When a child tells someone about sexual abuse, a supportive, caring response is the first step towards getting help for the child, and re­establishing his or her trust in adults

Responding to Child Sexual Abuse

When a child tells an adult that he or she has been sexually abused, the adult may feel uncomfortable and may not know what to say or do. The following guidelines are for responding to children who have been sexually abused:

What to Say

If a child even hints in a vague way that sexual abuse has occurred, encourage him or her to talk freely. Don’t make judgmental comments.

Show that you understand and take seriously what the child is saying. Child and adolescent psychiatrists have found that children who are listened to and understood fare much better than those who are not. The response to the disclosure of sexual abuse is critical to the child’s ability to resolve the trauma of sexual abuse.

Assure the child that he or she did the right thing in telling. A child who is close to the abuser may feel guilty about revealing the secret. The child may feel frightened if the abuser has threatened to harm the child or other family members as punishment for telling the secret.

Tell the child that he or she is not to blame for the sexual abuse. Most children, in attempting to make sense out of the abuse, will believe that somehow they caused it or may even view it as a form of punishment for imagined or real wrongdoings.

Finally, offer the child protection, and promise that you will promptly take steps to see that the abuse stops.

What to Do

Report any suspicion of child abuse. If the abuse is within the family, report it to the local Child Protection Agency. If the abuse is outside the family, report it to the police or district attorney’s office. Individuals reporting in good faith are immune from prosecution.

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