Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How To Do Your Best To Prevent Sexual Abuse... And What To Do If It Happens Anyway.


When I was a kid, my parents and teachers drilled me on one important lesson... Don't talk to strangers! We learned from an early age that if we were home alone we should never answer the door, and if we answered the phone we should say "Mom is busy right now," instead of "Mom isn't home." We were never to tell our names to a stranger, and if a stranger offered us candy, a toy, or a ride, we were to say, "No!" and run away from them. We knew this routine so well that my younger brother and I, and our neighborhood friends, would play games where we'd practice getting away from a stranger. One friend would be the stranger and invite us into the car (the picnic table), and we'd yell, "No!" and run away, and the "stranger" would chase us. Sometimes the stranger would catch us and drag us kicking and screaming back to the "car," and we'd have to try to jump out. It was all fun... and if some suspicious looking stranger had tried to lure us into his car, we'd certainly would have known how to handle it!
We never did get approached by that hypothetical stranger, and most kids never do. Actually, as we've discussed in this blog over the past few days, most sexual abuse happens at the hands of someone the child knows and trusts. So that old, "Never talk to strangers" lesson doesn't really work in this case!
But here are some tips from the American Psychological Association on how to arm your children against sexual abuse.

- Teach your children some basic sex education, including the names and locations of their private parts. Teach them that nobody should touch their private parts. (My sister tells her daughter that nobody should touch her private parts except perhaps her parents or doctor, and then only when washing her or putting medicine on her.)

- Teach them that adults should not approach children for sexual purposes. It is wrong, and it is against the law. (Some perpetrators will tell children that what they are doing is something "everyone" does... and kids need to know the truth ahead of time!)

- Kids should learn to feel okay about saying, "Stop," if someone does something that makes them uncomfortable. Even if its a hug from Aunt Mildred that makes them feel nervous, they have the right to decide that they don't want to be touched. (And by the way, it is better not to tell kids that they must go give Grandma a kiss in order to show their love for her. Some perpetrators will say similar things... for instance, an uncle will tell a child, "If you loved me, you'd let me do this." Let them decide how to display their affection for others,)

- Teach your kids to communicate openly with you. Discuss a variety of subjects with them in an open way. Stress to them that if anyone ever hurts them or makes them feel uncomfortable, they should tell you, or tell another adult that they trust, right away.

STEP 2: Know The Warning Signs!
While you are doing your best to protect your children, you should also know the warning signs so you can tell if your child (or perhaps one of his or her friends, a neighbor's child, etc) has been sexually abused. Stop It Now! suggests these red-flag warning signs.

- Fear of certain people or places (e.g., a child may not want to be left alone with a baby-sitter, a friend, a relative, or some other child or adult; or a child who is usually talkative and cheery may become quiet and distant when around a certain person).
- Nightmares, trouble sleeping, or other extreme fears without an obvious explanation.
- Play, writing, drawings or dreams may include sexual or frightening images.
Spacing out at odd times, seems distracted or distant, “checked out.”
- Loss of appetite, or trouble eating or swallowing or sudden changes in eating habits.
- Sudden mood swings: rage, fear, anger, insecurity or withdrawal.
- Leaves “clues” that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues.
- Stomach illness all of the time with no identifiable reason.
- An older child behaving like a younger child, such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking.
- Adult-like sexual activities with toys or other children, such as simulating sex with dolls or asking other children/siblings to behave sexually.
- New words for private body parts.
- Shows resistance to bathing, toileting, or removing clothes even at appropriate situations.
- Refusing to talk about a "secret" he/she has with an adult or older child.
- Talking about a new older friend.
- Suddenly having money, toys or other gifts for no apparent reason.
- Cutting, burning or otherwise intentionally harming herself or himself, i.e. drug use, alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, running away from home.
- Has negative self image, i.e. thinks of self or body as repulsive, dirty or bad.

These signs, by themselves, can be caused by other issues, or just part of regular development. But if a child seems to have several of these symptoms, it might be time to investigate further.
And if a child has any of these physical signs:
- Unexplained bruises, redness, or bleeding of the child's genitals, anus, or mouth?
- Pain at the genitals, anus, or mouth?
- Genital sores or milky fluids in the genital area?

... take them to a doctor right away.

Lets say you do end up finding out that a child in your life has been sexually abuse. Of course you're probably going to feel upset and overwhelmed... but you're going to need to know how to handle the situation. Child Protect offers some advice.

- When a child tells you she's been sexually abused, ask her to tell you what happened, in her own words. Listen carefully, but do not ask for details. (If you ask for details, later on in court that may be considered putting ideas or words into the child's mind.)
- Tell the child you are glad he told you this, and that he did the right thing by coming to you.
- Know that children very rarely lie about these kinds of things. If a child says he's been sexually abused, please believe him!
- Your initial reaction is important. If a child tells you she's been sexually abused, it is important to react with calmness, acceptance and support. But if, in the moment, you have a more negative reaction, you can go back later and explain to the child how the news made you feel, and that you were not upset at the child.
- Make sure the child knows that you do not blame him for the abuse and you are not mad at him, disgusted with him, disappointed by him, etc.
- If you think she's been injured during the abuse, take her to her regular pediatrician or to the emergency room.
- Contact your area's Department of Children And Family Services and/or the police department. The adult who abused the child has committed a crime, and it needs to be reported!
- Try not to treat her differently after she's told you this. Try to continue your everyday life as much as possible given the circumstances, with a little extra support and attention added. Expect the usual bedtime, chores, rules, etc. This lets the child know that he is still the same child, and in your eyes nothing has changed.
- DO NOT encourage your child to "just try and forget it ever happened." Let her talk about it when she needs to, and offer your support. On the other hand, don't force her to talk about it.
- You should take the time to talk over the situation with someone you trust... but do not talk about it in front of the child or other children, unless the child initiates the conversation!

The American Academy of Child And Adolescent Psychiatry adds that children who have been sexually abuse should be evaluated by a child psychiatrist, to determine how the abuse has effected them, and whether they will need ongoing treatment, and what sort, to help them deal with it.

Hopefully, you will never have to face this situation in your life! But it is best to know as much as you can about subjects like this, so that if the situation does arise, you will know what to do!

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