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Miss X (name changed), is a 25 year old college student. She was molested by a friend’s father on the pretext of being called to discuss prospects of investments and benefits of early financial planning. In her childhood, she was molested by her neighbor and during her teenage years by an uncle.
She did not report these incidents and that is the story of many girls and boys who have been sexually abused in their childhood. The trauma of the abuse is unresolved and the onus of the crime is placed on the innocent victim. This child carries this pain and may have such episodes again in adulthood where they feel like they were responsible for the event.
In this article, you will learn about the long term effects of sexual abuse on children and how you can protect your own child from being sexually abused.
What is child sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse of children is defined as follows:
- The involvement of a child (person less than 18 years old) in sexual activity that violates the laws or social taboos of society and
- that he/she does not fully comprehend,
- does not consent to,
- or is unable to give informed consent to,
- or is not developmentally prepared for and cannot give consent to.
The effects of child sexual abuse
The impact of such childhood sexual abuse is far reaching and has physical, mental, and behavioral long term consequences, which include and are not limited to:
- Unwanted pregnancies
- Physical injuries
- Long term medical illnesses like heart disease, obesity, cancers
- Suicidal tendency (6 times higher for men and 9 times higher for women with a history of child sexual abuse compared to those without)
- Post traumatic stress disorder and complex post traumatic stress disorder.
- Substance abuse, opioid use
- Risky sexual behavior
Another outcome commonly associated with child sexual abuse is an increased risk of re-victimization throughout a person’s life. For example, recent studies have found:
- Females exposed to child sexual abuse are at a 2-13 times increased risk of sexual victimization in adulthood
- Individuals who experienced child sexual abuse are at twice the risk for non-sexual intimate partner violence
The incidence of child sexual abuse is about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys. Thus you shouldn’t be complacent if you have a son and think it will never happen to him. It can and you should prepare her or him for the possibility and be aware of the signs it may already be happening.
Signs your child may be experiencing child sexual abuse
How to spot signs of sexual abuse in children aged 0-10 years
While a child may not be able to verbally inform you regarding sexual abuse, there are some signs that you as a parent or caregiver might pick up. Children may respond to sexual abuse in various ways. Factors influencing how children respond include how old the children are, how frequent and severe the abuse is, what happens during the abuse, and who’s doing the abuse.
Some children might show only very subtle signs and some might not show any signs at all.
If your young child shows one or more of the signs listed below, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been sexually abused. Your child’s behavior can change for many reasons, but it’s important to consider sexual abuse as a possibility. It’s also important to trust your instincts.
Changes in emotions
- Your child is quieter or more distant than normal.
- She cries for no obvious reason.
- He starts to wet his bed or soil his pants.
- She asks questions about whether people have to keep secrets.
- He is aggressive or angry for no apparent reason.
- She says her head or tummy is hurting when there doesn’t seem to be a physical cause.
- He begins to have nightmares.
- She is particularly clingy.
Changes in behavior
- Your child isn’t interested in playing or perhaps avoids certain places or people.
- He is showing problematic sexual behavior.
- She is having problems sleeping.
- He is not doing as well in school.
- Your child may have redness or swelling in the genital area.
- She has pain when going to the bathroom.
- He has difficulty walking or sitting.
- There are bruises on soft parts of their body like the buttocks or thighs.
- You notice symptoms of a urinary tract infection.
- There are symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease like discharge from the genitals.
Signs of sexual abuse in pre-teens and teenagers
The manifestations of sexual abuse in older children often differ from younger ones. If your teenager has been sexually abused, you might notice the following signs.
Changes in emotions
- Your child is aggressive or seems angry for no apparent reason.
- She has headaches or stomach aches for which there doesn’t seem to be a physical cause.
- He becomes angry or upset when a particular person or place is mentioned.
- She has trouble developing or maintaining relationships.
- They cry for no obvious reason.
- He has nightmares.
- She has low self-esteem.
- The child is confused about their sexual identity.
Changes in behavior
You might notice that:
- Your child is dressing differently.
- She has clothing, shoes, bags, jewelry, or electronics from an unknown source.
- He is showing problematic sexual behavior, including getting involved in risky sexual behavior.
- She starts to have problems with alcohol or other drugs.
- He is driving erratically.
- She is cutting herself or self-harming in other ways.
- He spends a lot of time online and is secretive about online communications.
- She is eating more or less.
- He has problems sleeping.
Changes in school and social life
You might notice that:
- Your child is spending more time on their own than usual.
- She has changed friendship groups.
- He is avoiding particular people or places, like a friend’s house or a sports group.
- She is avoiding activities or events that they previously enjoyed, or asks questions like, “Do I have to go to music lessons today?”
- He is doing less well at school.
You might notice that:
- Your child has swelling or redness in the genital area.
- She has pain when going to the toilet.
- He has difficulty walking or sitting.
- They have bruises on soft parts of their body, like the buttocks or thighs.
- They experience symptoms of a urinary tract infection, like burning while going to the toilet.
- There are symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection, like discharge from the penis or vagina.
- She missed a period.
Child sexual abuse prevention
The best way to protect your child from sexual abuse is to prevent it in the first place. And the best way to do that is to have an open conversation with your child about the topic.
How do you talk to your children about sexual abuse?
First of all, I know this is an uncomfortable topic for many of you parents and it may stir up your own insecurities or unprocessed childhood trauma from your childhood or adolescence. So if you feel like you don’t know where to start, that’s perfectly normal.
But by getting past the initial hesitation, if you address this topic with your child, you help your child stay safe and this gives them the message that you will care for them no matter what.
Talking with children can begin around topics like respect in relationships and may approach how good relationships make you feel versus how feeling uncomfortable, bullied, shamed, or disrespected is not ok.
You could mention this in conversation and return to it again. You don’t need to address the entire topic in one go.
Listening to your child’s concerns
During your conversation, your child may tell you about something that made them feel uncomfortable. If this happens, you could reflect with them back on this event and say, “Oh, you felt so and so when this happened,” not passing judgment, but rather as an observation also to really understand what exactly it is that they are voicing, and then you could offer some advice on how to tackle this situation should this happen again, or how they are allowed to feel what they are feeling and that they needn’t allow the behavior to recur.
Teaching a child to recognize their own alarm bells
You should teach a child to recognize when something is wrong in an age appropriate way. For younger children, you may say:
- Your body feels funny.
- There’s a funny feeling in your tummy.
- Your heart may beat fast.
- Your hands go hot or cold.
For older kids, you can tell them:
- You feel like you are going to be sick.
- You feel your muscles tense up.
- You have goosebumps.
- You feel like running away.
- You may feel your palms sweaty.
- You feel nervous or unsure about what’s about to happen.
By teaching children to tune into their own safety systems, you teach them to recognize danger of any sort, including sexual. After teaching them what their own warning signs are, you could then offer them solutions on what to do should these warning signs come up during their interactions. You could encourage them to say “no” or move away from the person or persons who make them feel this way. Also emphasize how it’s important that they share this with you so you can help them stay safe.
You could together jot down the safe people that your child may want to approach in case they are feeling these warning signs. Remind children that if someone doesn’t believe them, they should keep speaking their truth, and eventually someone among their safe circle will listen.
Dealing with inappropriate touch
It’s vital that your child or the child you are caring for knows and understands that their body is their own. Once your child understands this, they also understand that it’s wrong for other people to be touching them, asking to see their body, or taking pictures or videos of their bodies or their genitals.
Younger children can be told that if any adult or older child wants to see their bodies, with no good reason, or they want the child to show them their vagina or penis, that’s not ok and that they need to report this to you immediately even if that person asks them to keep it a secret.
For older children, you could say that your body is your own and that anyone wishing to see your genitals, penis, vagina, or breasts or any part of the body they feel uncomfortable showing is not ok. Let them know it’s important to notify a trusted adult about this incident and even if it’s done by a person they like or if the person who did it said to keep it a secret.
Explain to your child what the valid reasons to see your body are, such as during a clinical examination in the presence of parents, or during a vaccination on a buttock.
Places or situations that feel unsafe: What should your child do?
Younger children may not necessarily be able to differentiate what are safe and unsafe places at the outset, but they do have their internal feelings to give them some signals about the place or situation. You could run some examples by them, to give them an idea of a safe space and an unsafe space. A generalization could be that a safe space is where there are lots of people and if anything happens they could immediately get help. An unsafe space is where they are alone or with someone who doesn’t make them feel ok and they don’t know who to turn to for help.
You can rehearse potential situations that feel scary like:
- If you didn’t see Mommy or Daddy while all the other kids were being picked up from the school bus what would you do?
- Or you lost your way and you have reached an unfamiliar place that doesn’t feel right, what would you do?
- If someone you have never met offers you sweets or candy, how do you respond?
- If someone you do not know says they need your help to find someone or something, do you help them?
- If someone touched you in a way you did not like without asking your permission or made you feel bullied into letting them what could you do?
Teaching your children the difference between safe and unsafe secrets
Sexual abusers often tell or threaten the child they molest to keep their actions secret. Thus you need to educate your children about secrets they should keep and those that they should not.
Safe secrets are things like hiding the identity of a secret Santa during a secret Santa gift tradition. Or surprising Mommy for her birthday with cake and flowers so we don’t tell Mommy about it until her birthday.
An unsafe secret is when a secret makes them feel funny or worried or like something bad is being hidden, makes them feel embarrassed, or if someone says they want your child to keep a secret because people may think they are bad. Tell them they need to report this to you and you will help them decide whether this is a safe or unsafe secret to keep.
Teaching your child to say “NO!”
Telling your child they are allowed to say “no” and the situations when they are entitled to say “no” as well as respect someone else’s “no” are crucial.
Examples of this could be that they can say “no” when:
- Someone touches them in a way they don’t like.
- Someone makes them feel confused or scared.
- Someone makes them do something that makes them feel like getting away.
- Is threatening you, or blackmailing you, or bribing you.
- Has made you feel tricked into some situation (here you could elucidate with some examples).
You could even roleplay these situations so your child has a clearer idea as well as practice saying “no.”
It’s alright if you feel you don’t know where to start with regards to this particular topic. However, the fact that you have patiently read this through is evidence of your commitment to safe parenting and one that will benefit your child. While these conversations can be uncomfortable, they pave the way for a feeling of safety about things that scare your children and especially help them establish how to deal with such situations in their minds should an uncomfortable event occur.
These need not be discussed all at once and in general you should move from the known to the unknown, discussing things you feel comfortable with, and slowly getting to topics that may feel embarrassing. Both girls and boys should know about the regular ways in which their bodies develop, and gender neutral parenting helps raise children with an awareness of their feelings of sexuality, the appropriate way to express it, and concepts of consent and permission can be touched upon as well.
In India where I live, Enfold is a proactive trust that has worked for 20 years now to help children and parents with understanding what sexuality is all about, what good touch and bad touch are, and also provides workshops for parents on learning how to broach these topics. You might find such organizations in your area too so you could do a course over a weekend that may help you navigate this territory that wasn’t explored during your childhood.
While none of us want our children to experience a sexually inappropriate gesture or event, having them prepared for one is critical to preventing the occurrence, or in the case that it happens, limiting the damage it can cause.