As a parent, the last thing you would want to discover about your child is that he/she has been sexually abused, or is suffering through the trauma. But it is important to nip any sexual abuse in the bud, prevent any further abuse to your child, and make him/her feel safe. We have to ensure that our children grow up with a sense of safety in our homes and schools.
Children, depending on their age, may not be able to warn you of what is happening to them. They may lack the vocabulary and/or the understanding. So what are the three signs to watch out for if your child is suffering from sexual abuse?
First, your child shows physical signs of abuse such as bleeding, itching and/or swelling in the genital area, and/or may have difficulty standing or walking. Your child may also suffer from frequent yeast or urinary infections. His/her underclothes may also be bloodied, stained or torn.
Second, your child displays behaviour inappropriate for his/her age. For instance, regressive behaviour such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking for an 11-year-old. Or he/she may have advance sexual knowledge that is not expected for his/her age group. A child up to four years old may show curiosity about private body parts. Between the age of five to nine years, children may talk about private body parts whilst understanding the need for privacy. From 10 to 12 years old, a child may display interest in changes in puberty, and may ask about sexual behaviour and/or relationships. Teenagers from 13 years onwards may start dating, and/or use sexual language and/or talk about sex with friends.
Third, your child displays radical mental and/or emotional changes. He/she may suddenly withdraw from company, show fear towards a particular family member or family friend, and/or suffer from depression. He/she may start losing weight, or suddenly eat a lot. Your child may bathe excessively or display poor hygiene. He/she may self-mutilate, suffer from night terrors and/or shrink from physical contact.
If your child is displaying a combination of any of the aforementioned symptoms above, talk to your child in private about whether anyone, including family members and friends, have touched him/her in their private areas. Even if this makes them feel good, explain that this does not make it right--that only those who have been entrusted with bathing him/her and/or helping your child clean up after himself/herself is expected to touch your child in that area. If your child has indeed been abused, ensure that you tell your child that he/she is not to blame, that you still love him/her, and that your child is not in any trouble. Respect what your child wants you to do but it is also incumbent upon you to explain any decisions that you do take, to your child first. Work hard to rebuild your child's sense of safety, and ensure that he/she can trust, and lean on you.
If necessary, you may wish to bring your child to a trained counsellor. Try to ensure that the person that your child has named as the perpetrator no longer has access to your child. Report the abuse to the police and ensure that your child feels safe in your home and/or school environment.
There are two important things to remember if your child has not been abused: keep up this conversation with your child. Make it a continued, sustained effort. The second thing is to trust your gut instincts. It is never too young to start that talk with your child. And do frame the conversation from a loving place; do not make it a scary dialogue for him/her.
We all have a duty to ensure a safe childhood for our children.