Child sexual abuse is prevalent in our society. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused or assaulted before they reach age 18. Abuse knows no bounds and occurs among all races, religions and socioeconomic levels. Many people find it shocking to learn that nine out of 10 times, the abuser is someone the child or teenager knows and trusts.
The month of April is designated both as Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) and many other organizations across the state have been holding special events to heighten public awareness about sexual violence and child abuse and to educate communities and individuals about how to prevent these devastating crimes.
PCAR works each day to prevent child sexual abuse through education and by advocating for law and policy changes that protect children and teens. We’re proud to be represented by PCAR CEO, Delilah Rumburg, on the bipartisan statewide Task Force for Child Protection, which is conducting a 10-month evaluation and will offer recommendations for strengthening the state’s child protection and child welfare efforts.
Child sexual abuse is one of the leading crimes against children, but as a society, we’re not comfortable talking about it. Many parents think that child sexual abuse couldn’t happen to their child. They think their child’s school, extracurricular activities and social environment are safe, so there’s no way he or she could face the risk of sexual abuse.
In fact, predators exist everywhere. And as adults, we need to be aware of that to help keep children safe.
So what can we do to help prevent child sexual abuse?
For starters, we can educate ourselves and our children about the warning signs of sexual abuse. We can take off the blinders that prompt us to think our children or their friends would never be affected. We can learn the warning signs and trust our gut reaction when we see or hear about the trusted teacher, sports coach, neighbor or relative whose behavior doesn’t seem “quite right.”
And we can talk honestly and openly with our children so they know what to look for as well. We can talk to children about their bodies and personal boundaries, and we can teach them about healthy sexual development. We also can help them realize that they are not alone; that if they sense danger or an inappropriate interest from an adult, that they can talk to us about what’s happened.
By engaging in conversation across our community — with other adults, with community groups, with our children — we lift the taboo and initiate discussions that enhance child safety.
As adults, it’s important that we ask questions and intervene when something doesn’t seem right. Many parents of sexually abused children say they thought something seemed odd but they couldn’t put their finger on exactly what was wrong. As adults, it is important for us to take responsibility for questioning other adults’ odd behavior rather than assuming the problem is with the child.
Parents and caregivers are uniquely positioned to assist children who are experiencing sexual violence, because they often see the warning signs — decreased productivity, lower grades, social withdrawal — before others.
If you are uneasy about a situation or a person’s behavior, don’t shrug it off. Go with your gut reaction. Consider it a problem and respond accordingly. You’d be surprised how much that simple action can make a difference. Assess the safety of the situation, and then talk with the person in question or to the school guidance counselor or principal. Be sure to avoid accusatory language. Based on the results of the conversation, pursue the appropriate actions. If no actions are necessary, continue to monitor the situation and your child closely. If you suspect abuse, report it.
If a child discloses an experience of sexual violence, there are things that we, as adults, can do to help. Most importantly, we must listen and not judge. Children rarely lie about sexual abuse. Believe what your child is telling you and show unconditional trust, support and understanding. Sexual abuse is a crime based on power and control, and it is never the victim’s fault. We can reassure our children by explaining — in some cases, over and over — that the child did nothing to trigger the abuse.
As Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Child Abuse Prevention Month come to a close, let’s make it a yearlong effort to increase communication and community awareness about sexual abuse issues and prevention techniques. Doing so will improve the safety of our community and the health of our children.
Signs of potentially inappropriate behavior
An adult’s behavior with your child may be inappropriate if the adult:
Encourages hugging or physical contact, even if the child is uncomfortable.
Repeatedly asks to spend time with the child, such as a teacher asking the child to come to school early or stay late every day.
Creates excuses for spending inordinate amounts of time alone with the child outside the normal setting in which he or she would see the child.
Gives the child special gifts or sends overly attentive notes or electronic messages to the child on a regular basis.
Turns the child away from his or her family or encourages the child to keep secrets, which may prompt the child to make up stories or behave erratically to cover for the adult.
Behavior you may see if your child is being sexually abused
Changes in health, including headaches, stomach aches and extreme tiredness
Changes in eating habits and appetite
Personality changes such as low self-esteem, lose of interest in favorite activities, mood swings, fear, depression
Changes in school performance
Trouble sleeping or nightmares
Erratic behavior or talk of self harm
Gifts received or overly attentive cards and electronic messages from a new friend
Changes in body image
Unusual fear of being touched
Developmentally advanced language to describe sexual behaviors
What to do if your child says an adult’s behavior bothers them
If a child tells you about someone who seems “creepy,” pay attention.
Believe the child and ask for more details.
Talk to the person in a non-accusatory way and explain that the behavior makes your child uncomfortable. Ask the person to stop the behavior.
In the school environment, if necessary, talk to the guidance counselor or principal.
If you see signs of changes in your child’s health, emotional well-being, school performance or interest in activities, consider the possibility that your child is being sexually abused.
If you suspect or know about sexual abuse, report it to the police or to CHILDLINE (1-800-932-0313). You can make the call anonymously.