News reports of children, including toddlers as young as 3, being sexually abused have made me cringe each day over the past week. The frequency of these reports just adds to the horror of the acts. The thought of paedophiles and other sick adults abusing vulnerable children is so disgusting that most of us shirk from even acknowledging the presence of this mad, rampaging problem at our doors even as it destroys everything we hold most dear. Like other problems, child sexual abuse cannot be wished away. We have to acknowledge it’s happening to children we know and are in a position to protect so that the perpetrators can be identified and the crime stopped at a stage early enough when the child can be helped to come in terms with his or her mind-wrecking trauma.
I had my first chat about sexual abuse with my son, now 15, when he was 3 years old and just starting preschool (which was when he was going out, for the first time, unsupervised by people I did not implicitly trust). The chat was age-appropriate and simple. Along with instructions about his packed lunch, I told him to report back any unwanted touching, fondling or conversations related to his body or nudity. He seemed to understand.
I followed up with occasional chats — always casual — about people he liked and, more important, didn’t like, and why. I stopped when he was old enough to start smirking in response.
The need to consistently chat with your children about their lives cannot be underlined enough — and I know it’s not easy, given the little free time most working couples have — but equally important is staying alert to changes in their mood or behaviour. Signs of sexual abuse are usually so subtle that they are tough to identify even by sensitive parents and friends. Often, young children — about half of children who are sexually abused are under 10 years old — are too scared to report or resist abuse by the older and more dominant adults, who are usually in a position of control. Worldwide, four in five abusers are someone the child knows, such as a parent, relative, teacher, neighbour, or an older friend. Apart from the abuser’s threats, a misplaced feeling of shame can also prevent children, and sometimes even adults who know about the abuse, from stopping or reporting it.
The physical signs of child sexual abuse are equally inconspicuous as abusers avoid physically harming children so they can continue abusing them over time. Among the first signs are sudden changes in the child’s behaviour, such as falling grades at school or change in mood. Abuse also makes some children keyed-up, overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn, and almost all try to avoid the abuser, which can be seen in their averting eye contact with a neighbour, friend or relative, or resisting a situation, such as going to someone’s room, house, school or simply going out to play. In rare cases, vaginal or rectal bleeding may occur, along with genital pain, itching, swelling, or discharge, pain while urinating and have recurring complaints of stomachaches and/or headaches, so treating these symptoms should include gently questioning the child about possible abuse.
Everyone needs someone they can share everything with, but no one needs this more that children, who need someone to sort out the big, confusing world for them. Going by the statistics, it’s possible that a child we know is being or has been abused, and most often, just the possibility of being found out is enough to stop the abuser. Our staying alert to the signs of abuse could save a child from a lifetime of guilt, under-confidence, depression, impaired trust and self-destructive behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse, or even suicide.