As we watch the story of the sexual abuse scandals unfold at Penn State and now Syracuse, the first response for many was shock and concern for the boys who lives were so profoundly affected.
In speaking with many parents, the next response was “could this happen to my kid, and would I know if it did?”
It is a mistake to assume they would tell us, if something like this happened to our kids. Most children who suffer this kind of abuse never tell their parents. If the child is very young they may stay silent simply because they just don’t understand what has happened to them. It is also common that the victim may assume that if something this awful happened to them, they somehow must have deserved it. Of course no child ever “deserves” this treatment.
Probably the most important thing we can do as parents is to keep the lines of communication open. Kids who feel they can freely communicate with their parents are more likely to tell their parents if abuse occurs. For the most part, though, kids are unlikely to tell us about abuse.
With that in mind, then, here are some behavioral and physical indicators to alert parents that abuse might have occurred.
General behavioral indicators can include sudden changes in mood, problems with peer relationships, or poor performance in school. You may also see a sudden reluctance to communicate.
Of course these changes don’t always mean sexual abuse has occurred, but they can signal the need to pay closer attention to what’s happening in your child’s life.
Watch for any signs of regressive behavior, such as bedwetting or thumb sucking. If your child suddenly demonstrates a fear of being left alone, fear of a specific person, or says they no longer want to visit a friend or family member they have never had a problem with in the past, you should talk with your child to find out what is behind these new fears.
Depression and self-imposed social isolation can also signal problems that need to be addressed. More obvious and disturbing behavioral indicators include public masturbation (past 5 years old, it is uncommon to see this in public unless the kid has been abused) inappropriate knowledge of adult sexual behaviors, or the attempt to perform these acts on other children, adults, pets or dolls. Other behaviors can include nightmares, setting fires, cruelty to animals or attempts at self-mutilation. These more severe behaviors typically emerge over time, often as the abuse continues undetected. These are the kind of problems that are often reported by others outside the family and can escalate into criminal behavior with time and lack of attention.
Physical indicators can be distressing to consider but some are actually easier to identify, especially in younger children who tend to still feel comfortable bathing or showering with parental supervision. If the level of comfort with this type of parental supervision changes, that in and of itself, should send up a red flag. Beyond that if you notice any reddening, swelling, or infection in the genital or anal area you should seek immediate medical attention for the child. While you have your child at the doctors office ask him or her for advise and a referral for a child abuse mental health professional.
Older kids and teenagers are more difficult to check for physical indicators. Look for changes in or pain when sitting down or walking. Bloody, stained, ripped underwear, or a sudden reduction in how much underwear your child has are all things that should raise your suspicions. Ask about bruises, black and blue marks, or anything that looks like a bite mark. Unfortunately abusers tend to target the torso, buttocks, or breasts making it less likely that the abuse will be discovered. Should any of these indicators appear seek medical and psychological help for your child right away.
The best way to protect our kids is to keep them talking. Open, honest communication established in the early years will help them realize they can and should talk to their parents about everything.
As kids enter adolescence less open discussion is a natural part of becoming a teenager. Don’t let that stop you. Establish the ground rules and continue to monitor your teen without being intrusive. Insisting that you know where your teen is, who they are with, and that they honor their curfew is not intrusive. These sorts of maturity demands send a message to your teen that you continue to care about them even though they are becoming more independent.
Our children count on us for guidance and protection. Knowing some of the indicators of sexual abuse may help us with both of these goals.