Parenting: Warning Signs Of Sexual Abuse In Children

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Hazy image of child - Sexual abuse signs to look out for
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Globally, one in 5 girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of sexual abuse. Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incidence. Sexual molestation is the indecent, criminal behaviour of a dominant, older individual who coerces a child into sexual activity.

More than 90% of young sexual abuse victims know their perpetrators in some way and 30% of the molesters are family members. In most cases, abusers are male whether the child is male or female. One in 6 rapes occur within the family and one in 20 is by the “father figure” – father, stepfather, or male guardian. Children are most vulnerable between the ages of 7 and 13 and they don’t always tell which is why it’s important for parents and other adults to be able to read the signs and identify the changes.

Physical signs of sexual abuse

  • Pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection especially in children under 14 years
  • Blood or discharge in the child’s underwear
  • Trouble walking or sitting
  • Unusual odours
  • Bruising or continuous injuries
  • Sudden change in appetite – eating more or less than usual (this may lead to an eating disorder)
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Soiling or wetting clothes or bedwetting (or an increase if it already happens)
  • Stomachaches
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Physical pain or itching in the genital area

If your child is exhibiting these signs, take them to a doctor.

Emotional and behavioural signs of sexual abuse

  • Severe anxiety (such as nightmares or clinging)
  • Depression (including withdrawal, low self-esteem, thinking about or attempting suicide, frequent crying)
  • Extreme anger (including tantrums, aggression, increased irritability)
  • Angry outbursts with little or no provocation
  • Severe mood swings
  • Statements that he or she was emotionally abused
  • Acting younger or going back to doing younger tasks and activities
  • Regressive behaviour like bed-wetting and thumb-sucking
  • Persistent sex play with toys or pets
  • Abuse of other children sexually or displays unusually sexually and seductive behaviour with peers
  • Excessive play with their own private parts
  • Frequent drawings that have sexual content
  • Fear of being alone with a certain person
  • Sudden unexplained fears of certain places or certain kinds of people (for example people with a particular feature or characteristic or of a certain demographic e.g., men or boys)
  • Fear of being touched
  • Withdrawal and isolation from peers
  • Sudden refusal to change for gym or participate in physical activities
  • Changes in quality of schoolwork or grades
  • Delinquency
  • Substance abuse
  • The child says he or she has a secret with an adult
  • Statements that he or she was sexually abused
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behaviour inappropriate for their age
  • Unusual, persistent, or developmentally inappropriate questioning about human sexuality

It’s important to know and understand the stages of development. This helps you notice if something is off which may indicate a problem. For example, knowing what’s natural and healthy in a child’s sexual development will help you know what is potentially problematic. For the emotional signs, consider speaking to a counsellor or therapist.

Signs of child sexual abuse by age

Age 0-3

  • Fear
  • Excessive crying
  • Feeding and bowel problems
  • Sleeping problems

Age 2-9

  • Fear of certain things: people, places, activities
  • Behavioural regression: bedwetting, stranger anxiety
  • Trouble eating or changes in appetite
  • Nightmares, trouble sleeping
  • Withdrawal from loved ones
  • Feeling shameful or guilty
  • Masturbating excessively
  • Victimizing others sexually
  • Fear of recurring attack

Age 9+

  • Depression
  • Nightmares, trouble sleeping
  • Doing poorly in school
  • Promiscuous activity
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Signs of aggression
  • Running away from home
  • Fear of recurring attack
  • Changes in appetite
  • Early pregnancy
  • Suicidal thoughts and gestures
  • Overly mature behaviour
  • Exuding anger toward being forced into situations outside their control

What to do if a child says they are being sexually abused

If a child says something inappropriate has happened, always, always take the child seriously, no matter who they say did it. They mustered up the courage to come to you and you must respond like a responsible, caring adult.

  1. Believe them.
  2. Don’t freak out, break down or lose your temper. There will be time for that later.
  3. Comfort them. Make sure they know it’s not their fault, that you’re on their side and that you will do everything in your power to prevent a repeat of the same going forward.
  4. Make them feel safe by removing them from the access of the person they mentioned. This is the time to break off all ties with the person and not the time to keep secrets while worrying about what people will think.
  5. Get help. Call the police, go to a doctor, file reports, enlist services, and find counsellors. Get all the help you need to protect your child and help them and your family recover.

Check out:

6 Ways To Support A Sexual Assault Victim

Winny Obure Has Risen Above Sexual Abuse And Now Rescues Young Girls Who Have Been Defiled

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