Health Break

Health Break: How to recognize, discuss child sexual abuse

April 14, 2014 

Kristina Taylor-Porter is executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Centre County at Mount Nittany Health.

One in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday; therefore, the likelihood of knowing a child or adult who has been victimized is high.

April is Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, but as adults, it’s our obligation every day to recognize the potential signs of abuse and take an active role in preventing, responding to and reporting our suspicion of abuse. Often, there are no physical signs of abuse; however, the most recognizable signs are changes in the child.

Some signs of abuse may include but are not limited to:

• unexplained injuries, which may include cuts, burns, and/or bruises in a pattern or shape;

• an appearance of anxiousness or aggression, or withdrawn behavior;

• a child’s regression to earlier behaviors, such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, etc;

• fear of going to the place in which the abuse may be occurring, such as home, school, church, etc;

• a change in a child’s sleep patterns or the report of frequent nightmares — often, adults notice a more fatigued or tired child;

• a change in school performance and attendance;

• a child’s poor personal care or hygiene;

• and the display of inappropriate sexual behaviors.

Sometimes, children are reluctant to disclose their abuse for many reasons, and as adults, we may struggle with ways to talk with our children about abuse. But it’s important to start dialogue when they are young.

Talk with children about their bodies and feelings early on. Empower the child to claim ownership of his or her body and feelings. Teach children that people should treat their body and feelings with respect, which means no one has the right to hurt them or make them or their body feel uncomfortable in any way. Likewise, children are to respect other people’s bodies and feelings.

Then, adults must be prepared. Be prepared to listen to our instincts when a child presents his or her changing behaviors. Be prepared to listen when children are ready to talk.

Open the lines of communication and eliminate distractions when talking with children. Create a safe space for your child to talk to you about anything. Remember, children are learning to navigate this world and, as adults, it’s our job to be a positive sounding board and mentor to encourage safety, growth and understanding.

Listen without judgment when a child brings the little problems to you so they know you will do the same if they have bigger problems. When children bring their problems to you, thank them for telling you and talk with them about how you can work together to solve it.

If, during your time with a child, you become aware or suspicious of child abuse, it’s vital to report it immediately so trained professionals can begin to ensure the child’s safety and investigate. Reports can be made to children and youth services, local law enforcement and/or to ChildLine at 800-932-0313.

Kristina Taylor-Porter is executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Centre County at Mount Nittany Health.

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