Know the Signs
The stories are shocking and appalling. Catholic clergy abusing children, a former USA Gymnastics doctor sexually abusing hundreds of young athletes, a beloved pediatrician abusing children, and multiple reports of children driven by bullies to take their own lives. It’s nearly impossible to wrap your head around it.
As the headlines demonstrate, child abuse and neglect isn’t just something that parents inflict on children in the home. Many people children interact with—teachers, coaches, school bus drivers, religious leaders, caregivers, child bullies, or even a family “friend”—can be abusers.
For example, someone other than parents were responsible for more than 35 percent of reported child sex-trafficking cases. Child-on-child abuse is also common. In 2019, 22 percent of people alleged to have abused a child were themselves children (in cases where the age of the alleged abuser was known); 14 percent of the total were teenagers.
Signs of Child Abuse
Would you be able to tell if your child was being abused or neglected? Sometimes it’s not as easy to detect abuse as you might think. Some signs of abuse are obvious, while others are more subtle, making them more difficult to detect. No one wants to think their child is being abused, and children can be reluctant to talk about it for many reasons.
Although a child may be reluctant to declare that they’re being abused outright, they often communicate through their language, behaviors, and emotions. Communication about abuse is often elusive and indirect. They may try to gauge your reaction by sharing a story about a “friend” who was abused. Disclosing abuse can be incredibly difficult for your child if the abuse comes from a relative, sibling, or someone else close to you. Every child’s response to abuse is unique. Possible indicators of abuse include:
- Sudden withdrawal from activities the child previously enjoyed
- Reluctance to be around a particular individual, especially in the absence of others
- Changes in behavior or school performance, including lower grades
- Inability to focus or learning problems with no known cause
- Hypervigilance (excessive watchfulness as if anticipating something bad happening)
- Overly compliant behavior or an excessive desire to please
- Complain of pain or itching in the genital or anal areas
- Use sexually explicit language or act out sexual behavior inappropriate for their age
- Frequent bruises, especially in places kids don’t usually get bruises from play
- Stories to explain injuries that don’t make sense or keep changing
- Withdrawing from others
- Displays of fear, anger, distrust
- Sadness or depression
- Acting out or bullying others
- Self-injury, like cutting
- Nightmares or insomnia
- Acting out in class, being inattentive, or hyperactive
You’ve Seen the Signs, Now What?
If you think someone is abusing your child, how should you respond, and what should you say to them? Here are eight things that can help you respond to the situation after you’ve recognized the signs.
Your child may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or even frightened about discussing the situation. Make sure that you’re sensitive to their feelings when you talk to them.
Respond instead of reacting
Your first instinct is probably anger at the perpetrator, but you need to keep your emotions in check because your child can think your anger is directed at them. Respond as calmly and kindly as possible.
Your instinct may be to try to learn every detail about the situation, but if your child feels like you’re grilling them, they may shut down or feel like it’s their fault. Do your best to listen actively. Let them tell you what they want, how they want, and in whatever order they want.
Let them know they’re safe
Ninety percent of abusers are someone your child knows, and it could be someone that they trusted. Do everything you can to make your child realize that they are safe with you and safe to open up to you.
Validate their feelings
Let them know that their feelings are important and don’t brush aside feelings of shame. Discounting any of their feelings can be harmful.
Don’t force them to talk
Your child will have a difficult time talking to you about the abuse. Be careful not to push it or force the conversation. Sometimes the best thing is just to let them know you’re there for them when they’re ready.
It’s not their fault.
You know it’s not their fault, but it’s common for children to blame themselves for part or all of the abuse. Reassure them that it is not their fault, and they are not responsible for what their abuser did.
Seek professional help
Working with a therapist will facilitate the necessary steps for your child to begin the healing process and help the family begin to heal.
There’s no way to know how many children could have been freed from abuse and neglect if a parent had intervened. What is known is that vigilance and working together to support each other can make a massive difference in helping those abused reclaim hope and manage their recovery. Working together, we can end child abuse and neglect.