September 29th, 2017 -- “Can I tell if my child is being sexually abused?”, many parents wonder. According to research, there are several signs that might indicate that a child is being sexually harmed. Sexual abuse, which refers refers to a range of sexual behaviours between a child and adult/older person for the purpose of erotically arousing the older person, is typically an extremely upsetting experience for children. While many victims do not speak of the abuse (often for fear of negative reactions from their loved ones or the abuser), they may nevertheless ‘act out’ their feelings in other ways, usually through sudden negative changes in behaviour.
Some of the common signs seen in children who are sexually abused are:
• Acting out in an inappropriate sexual way with toys or objects
• Nightmares, sleeping problems
• Becoming withdrawn or very clingy
• Becoming unusually secretive
• Sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings, or seeming insecure
• Regressing to younger behaviours e.g bedwetting
• Unaccountable fear of certain places or people
• Outbursts of anger
• Changes in eating habits
• New adult words for body parts, with no obvious source
• Talk of a new, older friend and unexplained money or gifts
• Self-harm (cutting, burning, or other harmful activities)
• Physical signs, such as, unexplained soreness or bruises around genitals or mouth, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy
• Running away
• Not wanting to be alone with a particular person
(‘Parents Protect’ website -www.parentsprotect.co.uk)
It’s important to note that these signs do not necessarily confirm that abuse is occurring, as some of the above symptoms might also be seen with other negative experiences, such as bullying at school. However, the presence of one or more of the above symptoms should alert parents, guardians or other responsible adults to investigate further. The fact that many exploited children do not tell others about their experiences, means that adults often have to ask direct questions to determine if sexual abuse has occurred or is occurring.
According to the websites DoRightByKids.Org and RAINN.org (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), one helpful way to question children about possible sexual harm is in private setting that is comfortable to the child. Questions should be asked in a calm, composed and non-judgemental way, as an angry, accusing or hysterical tone may cause children to lie or shut down, for fear of upsetting the parent or ‘home’.
Reassure children that they won’t ‘get in trouble’ for telling the truth, and that your main concern is their safety. Questions that might draw out responses are: “I notice that you’ve been...(insert concerning symptom here), lately. How are you feeling? Is there anything bothering you?”, “Is there any person (or situation) who is making you feel uncomfortable/unsafe?”, and “Has anyone ever touched you on your…(insert name of private part), or made you do anything you didn’t feel comfortable doing?”
If a child reveals abuse, the responsible adult should follow up in ways to protect the child, physically and emotionally – such as reporting the matter to the relevant authorities for follow-up (e.g Police Department, Probation & Child Protection Department), seeking medical attention to check for physical symptoms of abuse, such as bleeding in the genital area, diseases and/or pregnancy, as well as counselling, to heal from the emotional/psychological impact of the abuse.
Counsellor, Counselling Centre
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