Childhood Sexual Abuse

Unfortunately childhood sexual abuse is in the news again this week.  I wanted to post a few statistics and give parents some tips on how to prevent abuse or recognize when it has occurred.

Who are the Abusers?

  • Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.
  • About 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children (some estimates are as high as 50%), continuing the horrible cycle of abuse.
  • More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way.


  • A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal.  They will also experience a sense of guilt.
  • Children who experience child abuse & neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime.
  • As many as two-thirds of the people in treatment for drug abuse reported being abused or neglected as children.

What Parents Can Do:  Vigilant parenting is the first line of defense in preventing abuse.

Be present

  • Be aware of where your children are and who they’re with. Make sure they’re never alone with adults in an isolated setting and show up for their activities when you can. That doesn’t mean attend every single baseball practice, but be present enough to know what’s going on and to ensure your child is never alone with an adult.
  • When choosing an organization or program for your child, make sure it has a policy against children being alone with a single adult. Make sure the atmosphere is open and transparent in the literal sense — no closed doors or private sessions, and parents should always be able to sit in on activities.

Learn to recognize risky behavior in adults

  • People who want to be alone with children: If a predator has nurtured a relationship, you may be inclined to let him or her be alone with your child if the adult asks.
  • People who break parents’ rules: Be wary of people who give your children candy or food against your wishes or let your child do things you don’t allow them to do. It creates a secret relationship.

Recognize warning signs in your child

  • Young victims of abuse tend to adopt unusual behaviors to escape their torment as a means of coping. They may start dressing shabbily to make themselves less attractive or appealing to their abuser. Children also tend to withdraw or isolate themselves out of shame.
  •  Other warning signs could be new symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor performance in school or disinterest in activities they used to enjoy. Don’t be dismissive if a child no longer wants to go to soccer practice or expresses a sudden dislike for a coach or teacher. Take it seriously and find out why.  (This is how one of the victim’s parents figured out something was wrong in the case back east.)
  • Teenagers might also act out with substance abuse as a means of coping.
  • Other signs run the gamut from mood swings and changes in eating habits to more overt clues involving adult-like sexual behaviors.

Talk to your child

  • An important part of preventing abuse is letting children know they can tell you absolutely anything without worrying about getting in trouble. An open relationship fosters trust. That means children are more likely to pay attention when you tell them never to be alone with an adult, or the difference between a good touch and a bad touch.
  •  Listen to your children talk to other kids; listen to their car talk while you’re driving. Notice if the child has become weary of talking to you. Observe situational and behavioral changes.
  • The child of five or older who knows and cares for the abuser becomes trapped between affection or loyalty for the person, and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love.
  •  It’s hard to ask your child about what’s going on in his or her life, especially when abuse is suspected. The key is to do it in a nonconfrontational manner that doesn’t convey anger, distress or concern; you’re the adult and caregiver and you set the tone. Don’t have the discussion before school or at bedtime; pick a moment when you have time to talk freely, without time constraints.
  • Parents should test different conversation openers in advance to find one they’re comfortable with. Maybe something along the lines of, “Once upon a time, something happened to me and it took me a long time to tell someone, but I felt much better once I did,” or, “What’s the best thing about coach so-and-so; what’s the worst thing?”
  • Telling children that if someone tries to touch your body and do things that make you feel funny, say NO to that person and tell me right away.
  • Teaching children that respect does not mean blind obedience to adults and to authority, for example, don’t tell children to, “Always do everything the teacher or baby-sitter tells you to do.”