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The Informed Parent

Being Alert To Child Abuse

by Marjorie Cain Mitchell, Ph.D.
Published on Jan. 15, 2001

One of the most frightening thoughts for most parents is the possibility that their children could be the victims of childhood sexual abuse. There are many excellent programs in both the public and private schools, such as the “Aware Bears”, that educate young children on safety issues. Local libraries and bookstores now have an excellent selection of child abuse prevention books that parents can read to their children.

Although many books and prevention programs emphasize stranger safety prevention, in reality, the majority of children who are sexually abused know their perpetrators. Research has clearly shown that relatives and friends of the family abuse most children. Well over 85% of all sexual abuse are by an adult or adolescent known to the child.

The greatest safety feature for prevention of sexual abuse is for parents to have open communication with their children. Encourage children to respect their bodies and to expect that others will do the same. Parents should teach their children that it is not okay for anyone to touch them on parts of their body that are covered by a bathing suit. Explain that parents may help them with body hygiene and doctors, with the parents’ permission, may examine them but that adults do not have the right to touch them on their private parts. It is important to help children understand the concept of good touch and bad touch.

It is important for parents to explain to children that they can always come and tell them when they have “uncomfortable feelings” about any adult. Parents should discuss that it is not okay for adults or adolescents to tell children to “keep a secret” from their parents. Again, having open communication between children and parents is one of the best ways for children to disclose any possible abuse.

There is no one sign or symptom that can indicate when a child has been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Children may exhibit signs and symptoms of distress, such as nightmares and night terrors, anxiety, fearfulness, separation anxiety, inability to concentrate, anger, and depression. Yet, all of these signs of stress are also seen in other traumatic experiences, such as divorce, death and other losses. Many children show increased sexualization and excessive masturbation following sexual abuse. But, again, caution must be taken as many young children may self stimulate to decrease anxiety related to stress within the family.

If a parent suspects that a child may have been a victim of sexual abuse, it is strongly recommended that the child be professionally interviewed and evaluated by a child and adolescent psychologist or mental health professional. To avoid leading a child, a skilled mental health professional should conduct the interview, and appropriate action would then be taken dependent on the disclosures. The best prevention of childhood sexual abuse is to educate your children, and then talk and listen to them.

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