Child Sexual Abuse: What It Is And How to Prevent It

Sexual abuse of children is more common than most people realize. At least 1 out of 5 adult women and 1 out of 10 adult men report having been sexually abused in childhood. By educating yourself and your children about sexual abuse, you can help prevent it from happening to your children and better cope with it if it does.

What is child sexual abuse?
Could my child be sexually abused? By whom?
How would I know if my child is being sexually abuse?
What should I do if my child reveals sexual abuse to me?
Can I deal with sexual abuse without contacting the authorities?
What will happen to the child and to the abuser if sexual abuse is reported?
What can parents do to prevent sexual abuse?

What is child sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse is when an adult or an older child forces sexual contact on a younger child. Any of the following acts by an adult or older child are sexual abuse:

Could my child be sexually abused? By whom?

Children are abused most often by adults or older children whom they know and who can influence their behavior by exerting power over them. In 8 out of 10 reported cases, the abuser is someone the child knows. The abuser is often an authority figure whom the child trusts or loves.

How would I know if my child is being sexually abused?

Many parents expect their son or daughter to tell them or another trusted adult about being sexually abused. Abusers often threaten or convince the child not to tell anyone about it. The child may believe that the abuse is his fault and that the will be punished if someone finds out. A child’s first statements about abuse may be vague and incomplete. He may just hint about the problem to see if he would get in trouble. Abused children may tell a friend about it. The friend may then tell an adult. Children may tell about abuse after a personal safety program at their school. Parents may suspect abuse because of the child’s behavior. You should be aware of the following behavioral changes in your child that may be symptoms of sexual abuse:

Physical signs of abuse may include the following:

  • Anal or genital redness, or bleeding
  • Unusual discharge from the anus or vagina
  • Sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, Chlamydia, or genital warts
  • Repeated urinary tract infections in females
  • Pregnancy, in older females

What should I do if my child reveals sexual abuse to me?

Children tend to ignore things that make them feel uncomfortable, rather than recognize them as warning signs. If your child talks about abuse, listen carefully and take it very seriously. When a child’s plea for help is ignored, not believed, or punished, she may not risk telling again. As a result, the child could remain a victim of abuse for months or years.

Teach your child that it is OK to talk about uncomfortable feelings.

If your child reveals abuse, you should take the following steps:

  1. Face the issue. Listen to your child’s reasons for revealing the issue. Tell your child the abuse is not her fault. Give her extra love, comfort, and reassurance. If you are angry, make sure she knows you are not angry with her, and you will help her. Let your child know how brave she is to tell her and that you understand how scared she feels. This is even more important if the child has been abused by a close and trusted relative or family friend.
  2. Take charge of the situation. Protect the child from further abuse.
  3. Discuss the problem with a pediatrician and a counselor who can provide support.
  4. Report abuse to the police or local child protection service agency. Ask about crisis support help.

Can I deal with sexual abuse in my family without contacting the authorities?

Parents should not try to stop or treat sexual abuse themselves. If abuse is suspected, parents should follow the steps above and get help.

What will happen to the child and to the abuser if sexual abuse is reported?

Sexual abuse is against the law. It is a crime, no matter who the abuser is. Cases are investigated by the police, a social service agency, or both. With the help of a doctor, they will decide whether sexual abuse took place. Depending on the circumstances, the police may let social services manage the case, especially if the child is very young, shows no signs of physical injury, or if the abuser is young or a family member. When a child is abused by a nonfamily member, the matter must be handled by the police.

After sexual abuse is reported, what happens next depends on the circumstances of the case. Preventing further abuse of the child is the first concern of the authorities. The abuser may be referred to a treatment program. If the suspected abuser lives in the home and faces criminal charges, authorities will recommend that the suspected abuser leave the home. In any case, the child can usually stay in the home as long as her family will take the necessary steps to protect her from further abuse by asking the abuser to leave the home while the problem is investigated. Whatever the circumstances, the child and family will need a lot of support from relatives and friends.

What parents can do to prevent sexual abuse

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages you to take the following steps:

Your child’s teacher or school counselor can help you teach your child to avoid or report sexual abuse. They know how this can be done without upsetting or scaring your child. Your pediatrician also understands the importance of communication between parents and children. He or she is trained to detect the signs of child sexual abuse and is familiar with and is familiar with resources in the community. Ask your pediatrician for advice or how to protect your children.

For further information on child sexual abuse or other forms of abuse, please contact:

Prevent Child Abuse America
PO Box 2866
Chicago, IL 60690-9950

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