Warning signs for possible sexual abuse
Written by: Yolandi Singleton, Supervisor: Assessment & Therapy Unit
Recent court cases regarding alleged sexual abuse and neglect of children brings this matter to the fore again. Sexual abuse is probably the type of abuse that upsets the society the most. As adults we are extremely aware that it causes physical, psychological, social and emotional damage to a child when being sexually abused - not to mention the other challenges the same child might be facing at the same time.
Children mostly display problematic behaviour to show the world what they are experiencing, without verbally expressing it. When it comes to sexual abuse, children will often subtly make disclosures in order to test the reaction of the receiver. All too often children do not want to disclose abuse as they are afraid they will not be believed or that the receiver will be angry or think that the child was in some way responsible for the abuse.
Many times we find that parents who battle their own unresolved issues due to childhood sexual abuse often project their hurt and pain onto their children as a way to cope with their own trauma or to gain control over their personal experience. Due to their own trauma they tend to place their child in the victim seat when any possible threatening situation arises, resulting in the sexual abuse of the child.
The signs and symptoms of children who have been sexually, emotionally or physically abused are more or less the same. It is therefore challenging to determine what type of abuse the child was exposed to by merely looking at behaviour. The following warning signs can however be reasons for concern when considering the possibility of sexual abuse:
- Excessive masturbation, still continuing even after boundaries were set to the child;
- When a child wants to sexually engage with another child by attempting to enforce penetration of the genitals or any form of object;
- Encopresis (soiling in pants) or enuresis (bedwetting);
- When a child makes a disclosure and thereafter recant (withdraw their statement);
- Expressing strange and overly anxious comments about a specific person;
- Infection in the genitals (consider that some genital infections might be due to medical reasons);
- Age inappropriate sexual behaviour (the child displays sexual behaviour when not supposing to have such knowledge);
- If a child displays inappropriate sexual behaviour, explore it in a non-leading way such as: “I am wondering where you learned to do… or tell me more…”;
- When the sexual behaviour put the child or someone else in a position to get hurt:
- When the child’s main focus during play is to engage on a sexual level; or
- Sudden change in behaviour such as sleeping and eating patterns (consider that these symptoms are also present when children have been physically or emotionally abused).
What to do when a child made a sexual abuse disclosure:
- Children do not verbally communicate like adults and find it difficult to express the experience. It is important to stay calm and find help. Do not overreact. It causes more harm.
- Do not interrogate the child.
- Do not say anything negative about the alleged abuser (this will scare the child and cause possible withdraw. Remember, perpetrators are threatening and manipulative).
- Do not make empty promises, such as “you will never see that person again”.
- If you are not trained to explore abuse by means of forensic interviewing, limit your questions regarding the abuse and the alleged perpetrator. Avoid questions that leads the child to a specific answer you want. Resist the temptation to gather all the information. Leave it to the professionals to explore properly.
- Let the child know that you believe him/her and that you are proud of them for telling you something you know must hurt a lot. Assure the child that you do not blame them and are not angry and that it is not their fault.
Remember that for a child to disclose sexual abuse is a very brave step, but a difficult step at the same time. Children must be free to experience life in a non-threatening way. At times they can engage in innocent sexual play without having the intention to receive sexual gratification, but merely to explore body parts, which is an interesting topic for youngsters at times. Treat them gently and assure them of your support and understanding.
If you suspect sexual or other abuse, please contact us on 012-4609236.
Child Welfare Tshwane – serving the community of Tshwane with pride since 1918.