Learning to spot the signs of child sexual abuse

Learning to spot the signs of child sexual abuse

The prospect is a parent’s nightmare, the thing that keeps them
obsessively asking things like,

What do we say to strangers?

and

What do we do if a stranger offers us candy?

But the true horror of molestation is the fact that so often
it’s a close relative: a parent or other relative, a family friend
or neighbor.
The prospect is a parent’s nightmare, the thing that keeps them obsessively asking things like, “What do we say to strangers?” and “What do we do if a stranger offers us candy?”

But the true horror of molestation is the fact that so often it’s a close relative: a parent or other relative, a family friend or neighbor.

It can be hard to distinguish if something is wrong, even for the most careful parent because the evidence of such an act is usually not visible.

In most cases it won’t show up in bruises or scratch marks, but parents can sometimes spot the emotional reaction to a child’s assault.

If you’re thinking these signs aren’t important, that it could never happen to your child, think again.

A child is sexually abused once every two minutes, writes Dr. Kenneth Fuller, psychiatrist and author of the book “Unacceptable Risk: Letters From a Child Molester.”

In the overall population, that translates to disturbing figures: One in three women and nearly one in five men are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, most of them as children, said Gilroy psychotherapist Pete Collom.

In the beginning stages, the biggest symptom of something amiss with most children who are being abused is a change in mood.

Introverted children may become precociously talkative while normally outgoing kids may appear suddenly introspective and wary of strangers.

This behavior can also be accompanied by sudden attachment issues, such as fear of separation from a parent, fear of strangers and general anxiety, said Collom.

“When you’re looking at a specific perpetrator, a lot of times they’re going to tell you that they don’t want to go back to a place or back to see a person they used to enjoy,” said Collom. “I’ve seen that in daycare abuse.”

As abuse progresses, some children begin to engage in behaviors that “may seem really inappropriate,” said Barry Goldman-Hall, a licensed clinical social worker who is clinical director of Community Solutions in Morgan Hill.

This may consist of excessive kissing, touching, interest in genitalia and sexual objects as well as comments that just don’t seem right.

Young children often explore their genitalia, but excessive interest or persistent masturbation could be a sign of molestation. And, Collom said, many pedophiles will speak to children in code.

“They may call the penis a lollipop, so the child may say, ‘Hey, do you want to lick my lollipop?'” he said.

Other signs of abuse include frequent night terrors, usually where the child wakes up screaming or paralyzed and immediately wants parental comfort, said Collom, or regression to previous behaviors like bedwetting, thumb sucking and a dislike of sleeping alone.

Abusers aren’t easy to spot. They don’t wear uniforms or have tattoos that inform the public of their proclivities.

The typical pedophile is a sexually frustrated and immature male, but not all abusers fit those categories. Moreover, most aren’t the reviled pedophiles we picture, either.

“(Molesting) is very impulsive behavior,” said Goldman-Hall. “These are often parents who are struggling with a number of issues – depression, lots of stress. Parents have intimate relationships with their children – kissing, hugging, touching – and that line can be crossed.”

Children are less likely to tell than adults, so many abusers are able to use coaxing language such as “our secret” or “just for us” to keep kids silent.

In incestuous relationships, the parent will often threaten the child with the fact that outsiders will break the family apart if they tell.

Parents should instruct their children on appropriate and inappropriate areas to touch, suggests Goldman-Hall, using a method as simple as “good touch, bad touch” to explain appropriate versus inappropriate touching and regularly checking back with the child.

“It may not be totally comfortable, but we tell our kids not to cross the street without looking both ways,” said Goldman-Hall. “We tell them not to get in strangers’ cars, so it should be part of their training to know what kind of touching is inappropriate.”

If you suspect that your child is being abused, ask them open-ended, nonjudgmental questions such as “Does anyone touch you?” and “Where do they touch?”

Do not ask questions about whether someone “hurt” them.

Often, a large part of the confusion a molested child feels stems from the fact that, while they may have been vaguely aware that something was wrong, the activity was either not painful or in some cases felt good, said Collom.

If someone has touched your child inappropriately, contact a counselor and local authorities. For emergency situations, call 911. Otherwise, contact the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at (408) 683-0601 or (831) 636-4330.

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