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Sexual Abuse and Your Child

Monday, June 6th, 2022

by Kristi Miller, MS, LPCMH. Certified Theraplay Therapist


I was walking home as a child, and a strange man claiming to know my father offered me a ride. I hesitatingly said "yes" despite feeling scared and being previously warned by my parents. The adult unknowingly intimidated me. Thankfully, he took me home safely as promised. I can still recall the fear and confusion of that situation. I never told my parents.

Child sexual abuse can be devastating. You likely have educated your child about good touch and bad touch. Most children know the basic tenets of safety. Never take rides from strangers, say "no" to anyone trying to touch or see your private areas, and avoid individuals who make you feel uncomfortable. Finally, always run away, and tell a trusted adult. Unfortunately, a child's level of development often hinders the ability to make informed decisions, especially during stress. Despite children knowing safety practices, following through can be difficult. I knew riding with the man wasn't safe, but fear (fight, flight, and freeze) resulted in a "freeze" response, and I failed to process accurately and make a safe decision.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) provides the following statistics.

  1. Social Services substantiates a sexual abuse incident towards a child every nine    minutes.

  2. One out of nine girls and one out of 53 boys under the age of 18 experienced sexual abuse.

  3.  Ninety-three percent of victims know their abuser.

  4.  Seven percent of perpetrators are strangers.

These statistics are unthinkable. You may wonder, "How can I keep my child safe without creating anxiety when I'm already doing everything possible to protect them?" I am alarmed by these statistics as well and understand parents' fears. However, fear can't protect our children from abuse. So let's explore some additional ideas to consider.

  1. Use developmentally appropriate information and communicate it confidently and in a matter of fact manner.

  2. Talk directly with your child. This shows that any topic or issue can be shared with you. Using the anatomical names for body parts also communicates that talking about their bodies and sexual safety is OK.

  3. Using the terms "safe" and "unsafe" can be helpful. Children tend to understand these words since the concept fits in various settings. For example, children should be discouraged from hugging or making body contact with unfamiliar people to stay safe. Forcing them to embrace familiar adults is also ill-advised. Some parents might think avoiding Aunt Diane's hug is disrespectful. Respecting the child's apprehension is best even though the situation may be uncomfortable.

  4. Some children are naturally more outgoing and approach strangers like a friend. Abused children also often misunderstand body boundaries and inappropriate cues from others. Teaching appropriate body boundaries is necessary.  We don’t want to scare a child, but we do need to educate our children.

  5. Seek out books and website resources (e.g., childwelfare.gov) that provide you with additional suggestions regarding sexual safety

  6. Due to the likelihood that perpetrators often know their victims, encourage your child to  always tell you about "anyone" who makes them uncomfortable or touched them inappropriately.  Make sure to let your child know that doing this will "never" get them in trouble.

  7. Sexual abuse is always wrong, but it isn’t always painful or extremely frightening to a child. Sometimes a child can experience pleasure resulting in painful feelings of shame.

  8. Parents may experience shame and self-blame if abuse occurs. Feeling guilty is a common experience when parents discover their child has been abused.  But the reality is that many parents like you are unaware their child is hurting.  So try to avoid blaming yourself, and always remember that the perpetrator bears full responsibility for his or her behavior.

Perpetrators rely on a secret of silence. Most child clients I work with think they are in trouble or are afraid their perpetrator will do something bad to them if they speak about what happened to them.  Fear and guilt are an offender's best friends. It is difficult for children to understand and talk to trusted adults due to manipulation or misinformation in an unsafe situation.

Finally, confident awareness about sexual abuse promotes assurance and safety for you and your child. Fostering a close and communicative relationship with your child promotes a safety net of trust, security, and connection. A connected child is a protected child.

If you or your child have been abused recently or in the distant past and you need some help working through the trauma, give us a call.  River Counseling Services and Sioux Falls Psychological Services meet you where you are, offering hope.  You may schedule an appointment with the Platte office at 605-337-3444, or meet with one of our Sioux Falls Psychological Services therapists from your own computer or smartphone.  To schedule an appointment please call 605-334-2696.