Kids and Abuse

February 27, 2012

Given recent reports of events on college campuses, sexually inappropriate behavior is at the forefront of many minds. As a psychologist who specializes in problematic and abusive sexual behavior, I work with both perpetrators and survivors, as well as their families. The damage done to survivors of sexual crimes is not limited to their sexual lives, but impacts many, if not all, areas of their lives. One question I have been asked repeatedly by parents is how they can recognize if their child is being sexually abused.

The most important factor in any child abuse prevention is education. Children who are taught the proper names for their genitals and appropriate versus inappropriate touch are more likely to report abuse than children who are not taught these important lessons by their parents. Education is the best protection for our children.

When looking for warning signs, an important caution is that children engage in sexual play with one another without having had any exposure to sexual abuse. This means that if your child engaging in sexual behavior, that does not always mean your child has been abused. Appropriate child sexual behaviors happen between children close in age in a playful and fun manner and usually happen in private. The game of “doctor” is a good example – looking and touching another body in a playful manner.

However, when a child has been abused these behaviors are not playful but carry negative and painful feelings. The following list of behaviors are signs that you should reach out to a professional. These warning signs are indications that you should speak to a mental health professional or pediatrician who is well versed in child sexual abuse. Please remember that this is not necessarily proof that abuse has occurred. These are just warning signs.

  • Children who are more than 3 years apart in age engaging in sexual play
  • Threats of force
  • Use of force
  • Rules made that the children “should not tell”
  • Engaging in sexual behavior in public
  • Engaging in sexual play in private even after a parent says it should stop
  • The play goes far beyond looking and touching and strongly resembles adult sexual behavior
  • In addition to being aware of your child and his/her behavior, also be aware of adults who want to spend more and more time alone with your child. Sadly, most sexual abuse happens by someone the child initially likes or loves – a family member, teacher, coach, neighbor. Part of good parenting to prevent abuse is knowing the adults in your child’s life.

If you believe your child has been exposed to inappropriate or abusive sexual behavior, please contact a skilled professional at Council For Relationships or another well-regarded facility immediately.