It's not something we want to talk about over the dinner table — or anywhere to be honest — but we can't ignore the fact that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse according to studies by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. Additionally, self-report studies show that 20 percent of adult females and 5 to 10 percent of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident.
While children are most vulnerable to childhood sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows that 1.6 percent of children aged 12 to 17 were victims of rape or sexual assault, and a 2003 National Institute of Justice report found that 3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.
Learning your child has been sexually assaulted may be the worst thing a parent can imagine. But it's important for parents to be aware of the signs of sexual assault because kids often won't speak up about abuse. According to Stop It Now!, this tendency to keep quiet might have one or many different reasons. The child might feel guilty they were unable to stop the abuse. They may wrongly believe they somehow permitted the abuse to happen or they somehow deserved it. They may feel confused, especially if they experienced any physical pleasure or emotional intimacy surrounding the abuse. They may also keep silent simply because a perpetrator has bribed or threatened them not to tell anyone what happened.
We spoke to two experts to find out how to tackle this beyond-difficult situation and take appropriate action while protecting the child from any further harm.
According to Sydnie Dobkin, staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, while physical signs of sexual assault (bruising, tears, blood, etc.) may be the most obvious, these are rare. Most signs of sexual abuse/assault show up in behavioral and emotional changes, such as:
- Regression — when an older child begins to behave more like a younger child, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking
- Creating a new word for a private body part
- Refusing to undress during appropriate times, such as bath, bed, toileting or diapering
- Dressing differently (either wear too much clothing or dressing inappropriately)
- Mimicking sexual behavior with other children or stuffed animals
- Displaying poor boundaries, for example being too rigid or too fluid with adults
- Displaying changes in mood similar to symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Displaying changes in sleep and appetite
- Withdrawing socially
- Experiencing a drop in grades/performance
- Showing an increased awareness and communication about sex-related topics that are inappropriate for their age
If your child (or any child) tells you they have been sexually abused or harassed, it's important to remain calm and collected — as difficult as that may be. "Thank the child for sharing, and gather necessary information about the abuse [and] perpetrator without overwhelming the child with questions," advises Mimoza Paloj, staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. "Create a space that is safe enough for the child to express all of their feelings [and] emotions in the moment."
It's important to communicate to the child that the abuse is not their fault, that they are loved and important and that they can trust you to keep them safe and protected from now on. You must also — as soon as possible — take any necessary steps to ensure the child is safe from the perpetrator, report the abuse to the authorities and get a medical evaluation if necessary.
Help and support may be available from your school social worker or psychologist, and the school system can provide services to the child to assist their education process during this challenging time. Paloj strongly recommends the child and their family have mental health counseling to process the trauma of the abuse and move toward healing together.
Parents can also take a proactive approach by warning children about inappropriate or unwanted sexual attention. There isn't a hard-and-fast rule for when to start having this conversation. It depends on the child’s level of maturity and comprehension. That said, conversations about private body parts, boundaries and appropriate vs. inappropriate touching can begin from the age of 2. Additionally, Paloj recommends kids are taught the anatomically correct words for body parts — such as vagina and penis — so they know how to label and report any abuse or any other issues they have in a way that’s comprehensible.
For example, during bath time, parents can teach their children what parts of the body are private and not OK to show to or be touched by others. Dolls can also be used to demonstrate appropriate touch with children, and parents can share instances of when it’s OK to show certain body parts, such as at a doctor’s visit.
"As a parent, it is important that you model healthy boundaries around touch, play, sexuality, etc., for your child," says Paloj. "Don't create unnecessary fear or anxiety for unwanted sexual attention or advances, as this may teach children to be fearful of adults and impact their ability to trust and open up to others in a healthy way. Don't talk about body parts in a shameful, 'taboo' way, as this may create dilemmas around sexual expression and nudity in an unhelpful manner. And don't share personal stories of sexual abuse to young children who may not be able to emotionally deal with this information. Ultimately, it's crucial to encourage the child to share whenever someone has 'hurt them' and send the message that they won't get in trouble for sharing this information."
Dobkin provides the following tips as a guide for parents having conversations about unwanted sexual attention with a child of any age:
- Discuss how to say no and how to ask for help from a trusted figure
- Try your best to be forthcoming and honest with your children
- Discuss consent and age-appropriate sexual contact
- Do be validating, empathetic, forthcoming and open-minded
- Don’t be invalidating, degrading, secretive or close-minded
If you know or suspect a child has been sexually abused, contact your state's Department of Child Services, the ChildHelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline (800-4ACHILD or 800-422-4453) or the Stop It Now! help line (888-PREVENT or 888-773-8368). Advice and information can also be found at the Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute (404-872-5152) and The Family Institute (847-733-4300).