Child abuse is a widespread problem in the United States. More than 3 million children are abused each year, according to the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse. Eight percent of those 3 million children are sexually abused — 240,000 children. Protecting children from physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse is everyone's responsibility.
Sexual abuse is any sexual activity between an adult and a child of any age. The typical offender is a male, but women also sexually abuse children. Sex involving an adult and a child of any age is never OK.
Sexual abuse is traumatic for the child. Generally, the adult takes advantage of the child's innocence, trust or affection. Often, the abuser threatens or bribes the child to keep silent. Most children do not tell anyone about the abuse because of the threats and fear. Keeping the secret of abuse causes even more emotional stress for the child.
The abused child will feel a lot of guilt, often thinking it is his or her fault. It becomes difficult for abused children to trust people. Anger, guilt and fear become common feelings for abused children.
Childhood sexual abuse can cause lifelong psychological and physical damage. The emotional affects of sexual abuse may not be evident until the child reaches adolescence or even adulthood. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse may find the abuse affects their ability to trust people and form close relationships. Adults also report feeling intense anger, low self-esteem and co-dependent and addictive personality traits.
Approximately 90 percent of the offenders are known to the child. An estimated 77 percent of reported abusers are parents, 16 percent are other relatives and 6 percent are non-related.
Children must be taught basic rules of safety to help protect them from sexual abuse. Appropriate personal safety rules are:
- If anyone tries to touch a child in any way that makes him or her feel uncomfortable, bad or afraid, the child should say "no."
- Children should tell someone they trust (parent, teacher, family friend, school counselor) about the touch or abuse immediately.
- Children need to be taught the difference between good and bad touch.
- Encourage good communication with your child. This is the best way to protect children from sexual abuse.
- Children should never go anywhere or get in a car with anyone unless you have given them direct permission.
- Children should never take candy, gifts, toys or money from strangers.
- Children should avoid playing alone or walking to and from school alone. When home alone, children should not open the door or tell telephone callers they are home alone.
If a child tells you he or she has been touched or abused in a sexual way, believe him or her. Children rarely lie about sexual abuse. Children need to know you believe them and will find them help to cope with what has happened. Tell the child he or she did nothing wrong. Reassure the child he or she did the right thing by telling you about the abuse. To report the abuse call the 24 hour Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400 or your local law enforcement agency.
Seek professional help for the child. The child should see a professional trained to work with sexual abuse victims. If the abuse occurred many years earlier, it is not too late to seek professional help to cope with the emotional feelings.
Parents need to be very aware of where their children are and who they are with. It's wise to keep your children close and to have only a few, well-trusted friends or family who occasionally watch your children. If your child does not want to be alone with a family member, friend or new acquaintance, find out why. It could be the first sign of abuse that has already occurred.
For more information, contact Patrice Dunagin, Smith County FCS agent for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, at 903-590-2980.