Sexual Abuse

The definition of sexual abuse accepted by most child welfare professionals includes acts of exposing youngsters to sexual stimuli that are developmentally inappropriate. Parents place themselves at risk of being accused if they allow toddlers to witness parents having sex, touch parents' genitals, watch R-rated movies, or view pornographic materials. Symptoms commonly displayed by sexually abused youngsters include:

  • Mimicking adult sexual behavior

  • Possessing sexual knowledge and vocabulary beyond what is normal for the child's age

  • Engaging in persistent sexual play (commonly with dolls, other children, pets, or themselves)

  • Having abrasions, pain, bleeding, or swelling of the mouth, genitals, or anus

  • Having an obsession with touching or poking objects into the genitals or anus

  • Incurring unexplained urinary or vaginal infections

  • Suffering from a sexually transmitted disease

  • Making direct or indirect comments about having been molested

  • Displaying a sudden, exaggerated upset over being touched when having a diaper changed, being bathed or helped to the potty, or during physical examinations

  • Suddenly manifesting phobias or exaggerated fearfulness around particular people or in specific locations

  • Experiencing frequent nightmares

  • If a parent suspects sexual abuse and there is no physical evidence, discovering the truth can be difficult. Given children's propensity for saying what they think parents want to hear, and the ease with which false memories are implanted, it's best to consult a professional with expertise in interviewing children and let him or her ask the questions.

    Youngsters need not be physically injured during molestation to suffer severe psychological repercussions. The aura of secrecy can be upsetting. Threats of retaliation against the child or a loved one for revealing what has transpired can produce significant trauma. If you suspect sexual abuse, consult a professional immediately.

    Protection Against Sexual Predators

    It is so easy for adults to manipulate and physically overpower toddlers that trying to teach them about bad people who hurt children won't enable little ones to protect themselves — and it can terrify them. In 90 percent of sexual molestation cases, the abuser is well known to the child.

    In most states, citizens are obligated to notify the authorities of any kind of suspected child abuse. Failure to report abuse is punishable as a misdemeanor. By making a report you are not acting as judge and jury. You can ask to remain anonymous. The police or child welfare workers will decide whether the reported suspicions warrant an investigation. For further information, or to obtain the phone number for reporting in your state, call S800-4 A CHILD (800-422-4453).

    The concept of keeping secrets is hard enough for toddlers to grasp. Don't complicate it by urging them to keep secrets about birthday surprises or anything else. It will be impossible for them to differentiate secrets that are okay from secrets that are not okay. When youngsters are old enough to understand, they can be taught that some secrets are okay and others are not, and that they must inform you immediately if someone tries to get them to keep a secret from you. In the meantime:

  • Keep track of his whereabouts at every moment and leaving him with trustworthy caregivers.

  • Instruct your older toddler to be sure to tell you if anyone touches her in a way she doesn't like.

  • Teach your child the correct names of all body parts, including “penis” and “vagina,” so if something untoward does occur, he will have the words he needs to communicate.

  • Societies Differ

    Exactly what constitutes abuse? In societies where families sleep in the same room, youngsters routinely witness parents' sexual intimacies without ill effect. However, children are born imitators, and their playground reenactment of bedroom scenes may be a problem in countries with more conservative sexual norms.

    In Western societies any unnecessary touching of genitals is regarded as abuse. When youngsters reach adolescence and reflect on what transpired, they realize that a sacred parent-child trust was broken. Many spend their lives trying to heal from the devastation.

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