Sexual abuse is any act of a sexual nature upon or with a child.
Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors.
Researchers estimate that about one out of six boys and one out of four girls have been sexually abused.
Children respond to sexual abuse in many different ways. It depends on their age, gender, personality and family circumstances.
If a child says she or he has been abused, the first thing to remember is to try to stay calm. You may need to reassure the child that what happened is not his or her fault, and that you believe them. Take your child to see a mental health and/or medical professional. The Center for Family Safety and Healing can help.
What Symptoms Should You Look For?
Child sexual abuse can be hard to detect. The abuse often occurs in secret, and there is not always physical proof.
Primary symptoms of sexual abuse in children and adolescents include:
Mental Health Problems
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Somatic complaints and nightmares
- Thoughts of suicide
- Habit disorders (biting, rocking)
- Extreme fear of being touched
- Unwillingness to submit to physical examination
- Sexualized play with dolls
- Excessive or public masturbation
- Requesting sexual stimulation from adults or other children
- Age-inappropriate sexual knowledge
- Withdrawal and mistrust of adults
- Behavioral problems in school
- Regressive behavior (including incontinence, tantrums, and whining)
- Running away
- Self harm
What Are the Risks if Sexual Abuse Goes Untreated?
If the trauma from sexual abuse goes untreated, the symptoms can continue into adulthood:
- Lingering PTSD and anxiety
- Depression and thoughts of suicide
- Sexual functioning concerns
- Difficulty setting safe limits with others (e.g., saying no to people)
- Relationship problems
- Poor body image and low self-esteem
- Unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol, drugs, self-harm, or eating problems
Many of these behaviors are attempts to hide painful emotions related to the abuse. The long term effects are often compounded by secrecy, fear and denial. The severe consequences of childhood sexual abuse confirm the need for early intervention.
How Is Sexual Abuse in Children Treated?
Children can and do recover from sexual abuse. That's why it is crucial for victims of sexual abuse to receive counseling to decrease or prevent the symptoms of sexual abuse trauma.
One of the most effective treatments for children with sexual abuse trauma is trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). Children are encouraged to talk about their memories of the traumatic experiences in a gradual manner. The goal is also to increase functioning and reduce further risks for victimization.
Other therapies that have proven effective include ones that build a supportive relationship with an adult that can assure the child's safety and the opportunity to honestly talk about the abuse and how they feel about it.
When their feelings tied to the trauma are explored, those feelings tend to become less powerful and their behavior becomes easier to manage. With professional guidance and parental understanding, children can regain a sense of safety and self-control.
You Might Also Be Interested In
365 Days Parental Advisory: Netflix Film Romanticizes Kidnapping and Sexual Assault
In June 2020, a film based on the bestselling novel, 365 dni, premiered on Netflix. 365 Days is categorized as an erotic drama and is rated TV-MA. This is concerning because the “intimacy” and “romance” that viewers are drawn to is actually abuse, as the relationship is based entirely on power and control.
Starting a Conversation With Your Kids About Sexual Abuse
Media coverage of prominent figures in our community involved in sexual abuse cases can be difficult to hear and understand. How do we approach this conversation with children and explain that one of their heroes or another important person may have taken part in a horrific act?
Is There a Stigma Attached to Having a Social Worker?
When people hear the term, “social worker,” they tend to associate it with breaking up families and other misconceptions. Over time, this has caused a stigma attached to someone needing help from a social worker.