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Spotting the Warning Signs of Child Sexual Abuse (pt. 1)

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by Ashley Schmutzer, MA, LPC

One cannot turn on the television and watch the news today without hearing about one of the many scandals that have hit our society regarding sexual abuse. Penn State, Syracuse University, and The Citadel are all dealing with this. As parents and caregivers, we may live in great fear of how to protect our children, and further, how to know if our child may be facing this devastation in their own lives.

How would we know? What should we look for? What questions should we be asking?

Being informed and proactive is the best action we can take to prepare and protect our children.

In order to better understand sexual abuse, the following are some key definitions.

Childhood sexual abuse is “any behavior that exploits a child for the sexual gratification of another. This may include physical force, intimidation, bribery, and abuse of power.”

Incest is “sexual contact between persons who are so closely related that their marriage is illegal (e.g., parents and children, uncles/aunts and nieces/nephews, etc.). This usually takes the form of an older family member sexually abusing a child or adolescent.”

Molestation is “the crime of committing sexual acts with minors.” All of these tragic acts are against the law in the United States, and carry with them the possibility of causing great harm, both physically and emotionally, to a child.

Sexual Abuse Can Be Non-Contact Too.
In addition, sexual abuse covers a wide range of behaviors, which may include both contact and non-contact abuse. These include: sexual kissing, the touching/fondling of private areas, oral sex, intercourse, deliberate exposure of a minor to pornography or taking of pornographic pictures, sexual acts, deliberate exposure of a minor to genitalia (exhibitionism), and inducing sexual acts with the molester or with other children, or variations of any of these acts.

As parents and caregivers we can look for both physical and behavioral warning signs. These are difficult to discuss, but should put a parent or caregiver on high alert that something is wrong.

One may notice the physical signs of a child having difficulty walking or sitting, bloody, stained, or torn underclothes, bleeding, bruising or swelling in the genital area, and frequent urinary or yeast infections.

Behavioral Signs of Sexual Abuse
Behavioral signs to look for are the child actually reporting the sexual abuse to someone, inappropriate sexual knowledge or behavior, nightmares or bedwetting, unexplained weight changes or appetite changes, suicide attempts or self-harm (especially in teens).

The child may seem threatened by physical contact or shy away from people. They may actually run away from their home to escape the abuse. One may find them being overly protective and concerned for their siblings. And they may exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, some other common reactions include withdrawal, depression, anxiety, phobias, psychosomatic symptoms (stomachaches, headaches), school problems, poor hygiene or excessive bathing, guilt, or regressive behaviors (like thumb-sucking).

These warning signs should raise a red flag in a parent or caregiver’s mind, especially if any of the signs begin to occur out of the blue, or for some unexplained reason.

In my next post representing the second part of this topic, we’ll talk about what important actions you can take as a parent if you suspect your child is a victim of sexual abuse.