We live in one of the busiest times in history where there are so many things vying for our attention. In a hectic family life with so many distractions, it can be easy to lose touch with our kids and miss important things that may be flying under the radar, like sexual abuse.
As a survivor of sexual abuse who suffered in silence for many years, this worries me. I remember growing up and never once thinking of telling an adult what was happening to me; I thought it was just the hand I was dealt and that I didn’t have any other options. My mother truly didn’t know it was happening.
I was eventually able to recover and lead a healthy, productive life, but now that I have two beautiful children of my own, I am always on high alert to protect them from abuse.
While I don’t let it rule our lives — they go to school and get to enjoy birthday parties and kids’ events (where I am present) and have occasional babysitters — I am very choosy about who I leave them with. I’m constantly asking them questions and keeping a close eye out for any possible signs. I just have to know they’re okay.
I don’t believe that we should live in fear as parents; I think there’s a healthy balance between letting kids be kids and have fun, and keeping a close watch on any possible signs or behaviors that may be a red flag.
The best prevention is staying in tune with your kids and preparing them. Make sure they know appropriate boundaries with their bodies and touch, what is allowed and what isn’t, and from whom. Make sure they know they have a voice, and that you will listen to it.
Based on my experience as an abuse survivor, these are the signs I watch for:
- Sudden avoidance, lack of eye contact, or shying away from any physical contact from specific people.
- Sudden self-consciousness of the body, poor body image, or unwillingness to undress in front of anyone.
- Often withdrawn or very clingy.
- Anger, acting out, or being mean to friends and younger siblings for no apparent reason.
- Preoccupation with private parts outside of age-appropriate curiosity.
- Mimicking sexual behaviors with toys or stuffed animals.
- New or unusual fear of certain people or places.
- New words for private parts without reasonable cause.
- Unwillingness to discuss topic of sexual abuse if brought up.
These signs individually don’t always mean that sexual abuse is occurring, however something is at the root causing negative behavior, and we should stay in tune with what is going on, whatever it is.
Here are steps to take if you do suspect something may be happening:
- Start a conversation. Don’t come from a place that suggests fear or anger, and be very calm.
- Reassure them that you care, that you are a safe place, and that they are loved no matter what.
- Ask open-ended questions like “Is there anything that is making you uncomfortable?” “Is there something that you’re afraid of?” or “Can you talk about why you feel sad/angry?”
- Explain that it pains you to see them unhappy and say you want to help.
- Expect a little push back, tears, or possible anger.
- Be gentle and reassure them that they are loved no matter what (it bears repeating).
I also think that it’s important to speak to them in a neutral environment. Any time I pick my kids up from a caregiver, I might ask them if they had fun when I pick them up, but I don’t ask additional questions until we are on our own. Even when I see no cause for concern, I just think it’s best to ask them about their time away when there are no possible outside pressures that may change how they would normally answer.
To date, thankfully I haven’t seen anything that causes me concern in my own children. They are both happy, healthy, and really love having their own playtime away from home when it happens. But I am always on guard. I just have to be.
I truly believe I made it through that grueling time growing up because I had a great mom that said she believed me. She was caught completely off-guard when I told my story to a school counselor, but she believed me and said we would figure it out together. She fought for me. Parental support is a vital part of handling the situation.
Different kids react differently to traumas. For additional information on signs of abuse and prevention, please visit the American Academy of Pediatrics site, or call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD to speak with a counselor or connect with resources in your area.More On