Many parents tell me they see changes in their children that they are attributing to adolescence. Adolescents approaching puberty are often sexually curious, however many parents say their children are “acting out” sexually in ways that may be harmful to themselves or others. It’s very common for parents to assume their child “must have seen it on TV at a friend’s house.”
Sadly, and far too often, these acting out behaviors are the result of sexual abuse. No parent wants to believe this could happen to their child, under their watch, under their nose. However, not addressing these serious wounds will lead to long-term underlying trauma that will result in subconscious life-choices and inexplicable difficulties as the abused child becomes an adult.
If you have noticed erratic behavior or sexual acting out in your child, how can you know whether or not he has been sexually abused?
Signs to look for:
- Slumped posture, pulling the pelvic in, so to hide it.
- Lack of eye contact- eyes are the windows to the soul, if you are carrying a secret you don’t want anyone to see into your eyes.
- Grades slipping
- Friends changing
- Giving up on sports
- Refusing to take showers or taking long showers (trying to wash it off)
- Refusal to go to the doctor
- Refusal to get undressed in front of anyone
- The child always needs to sit with their back to the wall in a public place
- Using drugs and alcohol
- The child begins using sexual words they should not know at their age
- They are acting out sexually with other children
First of all, be that person in your child’s life who is safe, supportive, and non-judgmental – like example 3 in the park example. That means setting appropriate boundaries which children need so that they feel safe and they know the expectations. It also means that when your children make mistakes, rather than judge them help them learn from their mistakes. As children we are expected to make mistakes while we have safe and loving guardians to catch us when we fall and teach us how to move forward.
If there is an ”elephant in the living room” don’t be afraid to state what you see. For example, “your grades have fallen; you are using words you should not know at your age, etc.” Then, ask the important questions. For example, “has anyone touched you in your private parts that are covered by a bathing suit?”; “Has anyone engaged in any behaviors that made you uncomfortable?” Without reprimand or judgement follow those questions up with, “it is safe to come and talk to me about it if those things ever happen.”
Let me give you 3 examples of parenting styles that are commonly seen while doing something “fun” for a child – like taking them to the park.
1. Parent sits on the bench while the child plays on the swings, monkey bars, jungle-gym, sandbox, etc. From the bench, the parent yelling to the child from across the park saying things like, “Don’t touch that, you might get hurt” or “Don’t swing so high you might fall” or “That is dirty, don’t touch that.”
2. Parent drops child off at the park and leaves.
3. Parent sits on the bench with snacks for the child and themselves, a book, and says “I am right here if you need me, go have fun.” Also, they get up from the bench periodically and push their child on the swing or go down a slide together, or dig in the sand. If the child gets hurt, dirty, or scared, the parent is aware and appropriately assists the child.
As a child, which parent would you feel safest and happiest with?
The effects of childhood sexual abuse are long lasting and very painful. It is important to create a safe environment for your child, be aware of their behavior changes, and be welcoming and responsive to their confidences. It shouldn’t hurt to be a child – and when it does, there’s usually something wrong.
See the ACE test research by Kaiser and CDC for more information about the effects of Child abuse and maltreatment.