Recognizing The Signs Of Sexual Abuse In Children & What To Do

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Abuse can be a tough thing to face, especially when the attacker has used sexual means to hurt and degrade another. Sexual abuse is more often spoken about as it relates to women and their attackers, but sexual abuse can happen to men and even children. In the African American community talking about abuse and trauma still seem to be difficult areas to tackle, especially when children are involved.

No matter how much we don’t want to face it, the fact of the matter is Black children are experiencing sexual abuse and it’s flying under the radar. Signs of abuse may be viewed as fatigue, anxiety and other traits that can be attributed to many factors outside of sexual abuse, but there are ways to detect when a child is suffering through sexual abuse and the earlier it is spotted the better.  

I had a chance to speak with National Coalition for Sexual Health (NCSH) member and Medical Director for Municipal and Regional Affairs at The Children’s Research Institute, Children’s National Health System Lee Beers, MD about signs of sexual abuse in children, how to interpret the signs and when to seek help.

Tyomi: What are common signs parents can observe in children that may not be vocal about sexual trauma but have experienced it?

Lee Beers, MD: The first thing that must be recognized and acknowledged is that most of these signs are actually vague, so they can mean a number of different things besides sexual abuse. So parents should not panic if they see some of these signs in children. Some of the things that can be a bit alarming are sudden withdrawal from favorite activities, sudden changes and complaints of chronic headaches, chronic stomach pain…you know things like that. These signs again can be reflective of a lot of different things so if parents notice them they shouldn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that this is a sign of sexual abuse, but it should alert them to talking to their child a little more carefully about things that could be going on and what might be influencing the way they may be thinking.

Tyomi: So for the parent that isn’t aware of the type of language to use to speak to children about sex in general, how does a parent approach the subject of sexual trauma?

Lee Beers, MD: I think it’s best to really start generally and more broadly and say “Hey I’ve noticed that you haven’t been feeling well lately. Is there anything bothering you or is there anything that you want to talk about?” And most kids including my own may start out saying ugh and sort of shrug. And then just asking more questions like, “Is there anything at school that is bothering you?”, “Is there something happening at an afterschool program or a babysitter?”…”Is there anything happening there that is bothering you?” And if they don’t disclose you can go into more conversation if there is something in particular that you are concerned about. You can even specifically say “Is there anyone that is hurting you?”, “Is there anyone doing anything that is making you nervous or making you feel uncomfortable?”.  So those are ways of framing the question that aren’t intimidating but it gives them the opportunity to tell you what’s going on. And then you just follow your child’s cues. If they start to seem like they are in something you can begin asking more detailed questions.

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