Child Sexual Abuse

What is it?
Child sexual abuse consists of the sexual exploitation of a minor who is somehow dependent on the offender. Abuse may take on one of many different forms, ranging anywhere from kissing to oral, genital, or anal sex - and it may not necessarily be forced upon the victim. Since studies have shown that up to 30% of all children have been sexually abused, it is absolutely vital for everyone to keep an eye out for signs of abuse, since they may not be readily apparent.

What are its signs?
Children who have been abused may show obvious physical signs, including bruising, bleeding, or pain in the anogenital region, urinary tract infections, vaginal discharge, or gonococcal infections in the throat or genitals. Children may also have difficulty walking or sitting.

In addition to the physical signs, emotional changes should also be watched for. Younger children may suddenly show an aversion to certain colors or food textures, or may begin to soil their pants or wet the bed. They may even begin to behave as though they were younger and become more whiny and clingy. Nightmares and disrupted sleep are also signs. Older children may perform worse in school, begin substance abuse, or exhibit low self-esteem. Eating disorders, an aversion to home, and depression are other signs. While it may seem counter-intuitive, older abused children may become promiscuous.

How to Help
For an adult whom an abused child has approached, or who suspects that a minor is being sexually abused, it is most important to approach the situation appropriately. First and foremost, do not deny that the child's experiences actually happened; instead, keep an open mind and listen carefully to the minor's story. Do not ask suggestive questions, but instead, allow the child to explain things in his or her own way. Since talking about being abused is no simple, pleasant task, offer to take up the conversation at a future time if the child looks too distressed. Reassure him or her that it is acceptable to talk about the situation with a trusted adult, even if they were threatened not to do such a thing by the offender. Some children may also need to hear that what has happened to them does not make them bad people.

While lending an ear is a very important step, it is also necessary to get the child out of the abusive situation. In some cases, it may be appropriate to let the minor stay in a different household setting until more permanent arrangements may be made. Otherwise, it is best to contact state and local authorities in cases where abuse has been suspected. Police and state child welfare departments are good bets. Other options include the National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-422-2253), Parents Anonymous (1-800-423-0353), or the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse (312-663-3520). Above all, keep in mind that the worst thing to do in the situation is nothing at all.

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