Sexual Abuse

By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect defines child sexual assault as: "Contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used for sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or another person when the perpetrator or another person is in a position of power or control over the victim." A central characteristic of any abuse is the dominant position of an adult that allows him or her to force or coerce a child into sexual activity.

Many experts believe that sexual abuse is the most under-reported form of child maltreatment because of the secrecy or "conspiracy of silence" that so often characterizes these cases. There are often no obvious signs that a child has been sexually abused. Because sexual abuse often occurs in private, and because it often does not result in physical evidence, child sexual abuse can be difficult to detect. About 30% of those who sexually abuse children are relatives of the child, such as fathers, uncles, or cousins. And about 60% of perpetrators are non-relative acquaintances, such as a friend of the family, babysitter, or neighbor.

Some children may show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including agitated behavior, frightening dreams, and repetitive play in which aspects of the abuse are expressed. Some children might 'act out' with behavior problems like aggressiveness or cruelty to others whereas others might get withdrawn or depressed. Because of their sexual abuse, children may show sexual behavior or seductiveness that is inappropriate for their age. In extreme cases, children might even try to hurt themselves or attempt suicide.

Parents can help prevent sexual abuse of their children by:

  • Tell your children that if someone touches their body in a way it makes them feel uncomfortable or makes them do strange things, they should instantly report it to the parents.
  • Teach them how to distinguish between respect and blind obedience so that they don't do things under pressure of someone who has an authority over them.
  • Watch out for the hidden signs. If your child shows any symptom of being abused, do not avoid the issue. Listen to your children.

If your child has been sexually abused:

  • Talk to your child about it in an encouraging and friendly manner. Do not make judgmental comments like 'I told you not to talk with that man'.
  • Assure the child that he/she has done the right thing by telling you about it. Offer protection and warmth to the child. There are chances that the child is extremely frightened of the abuser.
  • Tell the child that he/she is not to be blamed for the abuse conflicted upon him/her.
  • Report the incident to the authority.
  • If necessary, offer the child psychological therapy. It is necessary to have an evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional to find out how the sexual abuse has affected the child, and to determine whether ongoing professional help is necessary for the child to deal with the trauma of the abuse.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,