Parents worry about many things that might happen to their children when they’re in the care of others. Sexual abuse often is one of those concerns, so it’s important for parents to be aware of the risk of sexual abuse in young children and to take steps toward prevention.
- Teach kids from a young age that their bodies belong to them and that if someone touches them in a way they don’t like, they are allowed to say no. Model this behavior by allowing your child to say no to things like hugs.
- Children should be taught that the private parts of their bodies are just that, private, and that only specific people should be allowed to look at or touch those parts. This may include people who are changing diapers or helping with toileting, or, in older, more-independent children, only doctors or nurses who are making sure that their bodies are healthy. Children should know the proper anatomical terms for body parts so if something happens they can communicate to protective adults. Parents should have regular conversations under non-stressful circumstances with their children about who they can talk to if something happens to their bodies that they don’t like, naming specific people such as a parent, teacher, doctor or nurse.
- Talking to your children about secrets is important. Explain that families don’t keep secrets from each other and that if someone tells them not to say something to their parents they need to tell right away.
The most common way that sexual abuse is discovered is when a child discloses that it has occurred. When this happens, parents should refrain from questioning the child at length. At that point it is crucial that the concerns be reported to local child protection and law enforcement. Trained professionals can then investigate the allegations and help keep children safe.
Most children who are sexually abused have no physical findings on an exam, and exam findings that may cause concern for parents, such as redness of the genital area, are not necessarily associated with sexual abuse.
Parents may become concerned about sexual abuse, particularly in younger children, due to behavior. Sexual development begins in early childhood, and children by age 3 may express interest in their private parts and touch themselves to experience pleasure; this can be normal behavior. Other common sexual behaviors may include expressing interest in other children’s private parts, showing their private parts to others and trying to look at adults’ private parts.
There are, however, sexual behaviors that may be outside the “norm” (trying to put things into their private parts, simulating sex with other people), but these may indicate other problems such as exposure to pornography rather than indicating sexual abuse.
It’s the responsibility of everyone in the community to keep children safe and healthy and protect them from abuse. Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, including the Midwest Children’s Resource Center, is a community partner in this endeavor, offering services such as medical evaluation of child abuse and therapeutic resources.
Alice Swenson, MD, is a child abuse pediatrician at the Midwest Children’s Resource Center, a clinic which is dedicated to the medical evaluation of suspected child abuse and neglect.