SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN
Lesia Oesterreich, M.S.
Family Life Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University
Extension Assistant Director to Families
Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University
Copyright Access Information
By age 18, one of every four girls and one of every six boys has been sexually abused.
It doesn't have to happen. We can and must reduce these alarming statistics. As we do, millions of Americans will be spared lifelong emotional scars and painful relationship difficulties.
Why don't we talk about sexual abuse with our children? Perhaps we are unaware of the problem or uncomfortable with the subject. We may think our children are too young, or that the information will give them the wrong idea.
We usually want our youngsters to obey and trust their relatives, teachers, baby sitters, doctors, and practically anyone older than them. In our wish for our children to develop a trusting out-look and respect for others, we ignore a dangerous fact: some people who look, act, and sound trustworthy should not be trusted or obeyed.
Sexual abuse happens when an adult or older child uses a younger child for sexual stimulation. The stimulation may take the form of sexual fondling, handling of the genitals, attempted penetration, oral sex, or intercourse. A father watching his teenage daughter undress and shower is an example of hands-off sexual abuse.
Eighty-five percent of sexual assaults on children are committed by someone the child knows and usually trusts - an immediate family member, a relative, a neighbor, or a friend of the family. Most offenders are male. They come from all age, income, and educational groups. Their approach is usually not violent, although it often involves a threat or a bribe. The child might hear, "I won't like you anymore," or "I'll give you ..." The abuser relies on the child's ignorance, helplessness, and a lack of a clear understanding that she is being hurt.
Too many sexually victimized children, especially boys, never tell. Afraid that someone will blame them, they keep the abuse a secret. They fear rejection and punishment, or they think nobody will believe them. A relationship of trust or intimidation with the abuser also may silence the child.
At first, child sexual abuse may be marginally inappropriate, such as tickling or hugging to excess. During this initial contact, children can learn to ask someone for help, but first they must know that what is happening is wrong.
Recognize your child's right to say no to physical attention.
Respect that right, be alert to the child's discomfort and intervene when necessary. Even very small children should not have to endure hugging, tossing, and patting they do not like. If they learn to ignore their feelings because expressing them makes no difference, children lose a valuable tool for protecting themselves.
Notice when others harass or take advantage of your child. Whether this is coming from adults or other children, your child needs to know how to respond appropriately.
Take what your child says seriously. Be available. Help your child figure out what to do in uncomfortable situations.
Express disapproval of inappropriate behavior in others. Do not justify the behavior of teachers, ministers, or grandparents, for example, just because of who they are. When you do, the child will not only distrust them, but also may distrust you.
Refuse to leave children with people you do not trust. Pay attention to warning signs, including your own intuitive hunches about what is a secure, safe environment. Abusers frequently are nice people from nice families.
We can teach children to protect themselves from sexual abuse by explaining the dangers in a matter-of-fact way. Instill in them a sense of their own power to say "No!" or to leave or call for help when faced with a threatening person or situation.
Never insist that a reluctant child kiss a relative or friend of the family. This teaches the child that adults expect him to submit to unwanted familiarity. The youngster who learns early to be selective about friendships, touching, and other expressions of affection is prepared to fend off unwanted attentions and invitations. Encourage children to value privacy and personal space. They also should know they can talk to you freely about their thoughts and feelings.
Don't stifle the child's ability to give and receive affection. And don't instill an inappropriate mistrust of adults. The younger the child, the more attention you must pay to this. Teach children to trust their feelings and to let affection come naturally.
There is a difference between good, bad, and confusing touch. Know how to tell the difference. Parents should know that pre-school children don't always understand the concepts of good touch or bad touch. Studies show that young children can understand feelings connected with extreme experiences such as being hit "bad" versus being hugged "good." Young children are often confused by situations that fall between the two extremes. Most sexual abuse involves gentle fondling and is accompanied by gentle and caring words. Very young children may have difficulty perceiving this as "bad" touch.
It is all right to say no. Trust your feelings of discomfort, no matter who the person is. Say no to unwanted hugs, pats on your buttocks, and touching that confuses or bothers you. Alternatives include running away, removing the person's hand, and yelling "stop."
There are no secrets. It is wrong for someone to ask you not to tell your parents. It is wrong to trap you into breaking a rule and then threaten to tell if you don't cooperate. It is not right for someone to give you a gift and then expect something from you.
You should refuse a request if it: feels weird; will separate you from other children; goes against family rules; involves a secret; or seems like an unearned special favor.
If your child has already been assaulted, be glad that you know about it. Many children grow to adulthood harboring their secret with no one to comfort or protect them. Many have suffered years of sexual assault with no one to stop it. You still have time to help your child heal and learn protective skills for the future. Take the following steps:
1. Believe what you have heard.
2. Comfort the child. Explain that it was not his fault. The abuser is at fault and needs help.
3. Let the child know you are sorry it happened. Reassure her that you aren't angry at her and that she hasn't been bad.
4. Tell her you will make sure it doesn't happen again. Children need to feel protected.
5. Get counseling for the child, and maybe for the family.
We cannot protect our children by sheltering them from the truth. We must teach them about the potential for sexual abuse, and prepare them to react assertively to inappropriate touch and other signs of danger. As a society, we must refuse to tolerate the crime of child sexual abuse. In addition, education and counseling are needed to promote healing for both victims and abusers. The subtle, silent trauma of child sexual abuse can be prevented.
Adams, C., & J. Fay. (1981). No More Secrets: Protecting Your Child From Sexual Assault. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.
Bass, E. & L. Davis. (1988). The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: Harper & Row.
Iowa Child Abuse Hotline
Out of state ............................. 1-800-362-2178
Des Moines .............................1-800-625-9516
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