By Lowell Johnson is a member of the ACEs and Resiliency Coalition (ARC), Crow Wing Energized Mental Fitness Goal Group, and the Brainerd Lakes Area Early Childhood Coalition.
The sexual abuse of children is one of the most harmful of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), resulting in a sense of powerlessness, mistrust and betrayal. According to the ACE study, 21% of adults reported being sexually abused as children.
Sexual abuse is defined as when an adult, or someone five years or more older, uses a child for sexual gratification. Sexual abuse can take the form of touching or fondling a child’s genitals; having a child touch or fondle an adult’s genitals; attempting to or having oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse; using a child for pornography or prostitution; or rape.
It is important to understand that sex play among children is common and considered developmentally normal. Sex play is not sexual abuse.
Most sexual abuse occurs with family members or someone the child already knows, NOT with strangers. Abusers target non-assertive children and develop a relationship with them. They then start the abuse, and use secrecy or threats of harm to continue the abuse.
As adults, we need to protect our children. It is important that anyone who sees indications that an adult may be intending to hurt a child intervene by speaking up about the concerning behavior. It can be difficult, or even scary, to start a conversation about someone else’s behavior. Enlist help from family, friends, or professionals. Practice what you might say if a situation arises that makes you uncomfortable.
Signs of sexual abuse.
A child may report sexual abuse with words. A direct report is considered to be a child reporting incidents directly to a parent, teacher, non-offending adult or other person in authority. In an indirect report, a child may tell a friend or classmate, hoping they will tell an adult for them.
There are also behavioral signs that may indicate sexual abuse. These include
– Sudden reluctance to go somewhere or to be with someone
– Excessive fear of touching
– Excessive fear of a certain gender
– An adult or teen spending a lot of time with a child
– Sudden accumulation of gifts or money
– Expressing affection inappropriately for age
– Overly seductive/adult sexual behavior
– Unexpected sexual knowledge or fixation, use of sexual words
– Fear of affection, fear of any remotely sexual behavior
– Withdrawal from being friendly, doesn’t make eye contact, and decreased attention/focus at school.
– Pain in genital area, rashes, infections
– Constipation or pain in anal area, uncontrollable bowel movements
Prevent the sexual abuse of children by using the following strategies. Men, if you believe part of your traditional role as a man is to be a protector of children, consider these suggestions.
– Teach and use the proper names of ALL body parts
– Talk to your kids about “gut feelings” or instincts
– Explain the difference between a secret and a surprise
– Give your child permission to break promises or tell a lie if they need to in order to stay safe
– Talk with your child about who they can tell if something or someone makes them feel bad or scared
– Set and respect clear family boundaries around privacy and personal space
– Teach kids that it is okay to say “No” or “I don’t like that” – even to an adult. Practice ways to say no with them in various scenarios.
– Show your kids that “NO” and “STOP” are important words and should be honored
– Teach kids that they have control over their body and the right to feel comfortable. No one (even family and friends) should touch them in a way that makes them feel icky or yucky.
– Children should not be forced to have physical contact they do not want (like kissing or hugging relatives). Offer other options like shaking hands or blowing a kiss.
– Clearly explain to your child WHO is allowed to touch the private areas of their body and WHY – Parents, doctors, and caregivers to keep them clean and healthy
The content for this article was drawn largely from materials from Sexual Assault Services in Brainerd. Contact them at 218-828-0494 or 888-458-0494 with any concerns or for more information.