Sexual Abuse: Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare
By: Marianne Clyde


Every now and then, we hear something on the news that is so horrific we want to believe that it could never happen to our own family.

The recent Pennsylvania State University child sex abuse scandal, in which the university’s former football coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation, and the subsequent revelations in that case, have prompted many parents to question if their own children could fall prey to similar abuse.

How can we know for sure if our children have been subjected to sexual abuse – or could be exposed to such abuse?

What can we, as parents, do to protect our children from sexual abuse or other abusive situations?

What should we do if we discover our child has been abused, sexually or otherwise?

The frightening scenarios we hear about in the news can trigger paralyzing anxiety or prompt us to be overprotective, neither of which is productive or helpful to our kids.

Awareness and preparedness, not fear, are our best weapons against such a tragedy.

Be Informed and Observant

The first thing you should know is that strangers are the least likely individuals to molest your child. Ninety percent of child abuse is inflicted by people who are already acquainted with the child: family members, friends, or someone else that your child already knows and trusts.

The second thing you should know is that abuse is not likely to start with sexual activity. Most ofSandusky’s victims have stated that the sexual abuse was preceded by special treatment, gifts, and benefits that led to a growing relationship. Friendly gestures and behaviors are often used to break down a child’s natural resistance and instincts.

Charlyn Hasson-Brown, Chief Executive Director of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates of Prince William and Fauquier,, says that sexual predators can be charming, manipulative, and deceitful. She encourages parents to ensure their children are never left alone with adult friends, relatives, teachers, coaches, and neighbors unless they are absolutely certain these individuals can be trusted.

Know the Warning Signs

What are the main warning signs that your child may have been sexually abused? Hasson-Brown offers these indicators from Prevent Child AbuseAmerica.
Trouble walking or sitting
Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior
Makes strong efforts to avoid a certain person, without an obvious reason
Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities
An STD or pregnancy under the age of 14
Running away from home

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services( lists these additional warning signs of possible abuse in young children:
Compulsive frequent masturbation
Sex play with toys
Drawing pictures of sexual activity
Sleep disturbances
Cruelty to animals

Possible signs of sexual abuse in older kids may include:
Eating disturbances
Criminal activity
Self-destructive behavior
Depression and withdrawal

While no one can say for certain that these behaviors are positive indicators of sexual abuse, if you do observe these behaviors in your child, it is time to have a heart-to-heart talk and explore the causes for these behaviors.

Talk With Your Child

Believe Your Child. If your child confides to you that someone has touched her inappropriately, you must believe her. It can be difficult to believe such allegations, particularly if the named abuser is someone that you trust, or is well-known or highly-regarded, asSanduskywas. Statistics tell us that only one to five percent of children’s accusations are fabricated. So the odds are good that your child is telling the truth.

Show Compassion. Understand that it may not be easy or comfortable for your child to talk with you about inappropriate behaviors he may have experienced. If you react with anger, panic, or disgust during these conversations, your child likely will shut down, thinking he told you something that you cannot handle. Your negative reaction can lead your child to believe that you are disgusted with him or angry at him. So it is important that you stay calm, ask open-ended questions, and validate his feelings with empathetic statements such as “That must have been very confusing and scary for you.”

Reassure Your Child. Tell your child that she is very brave to come to you and talk with you, and that you have the ability to handle the situation.

Trust Your Instincts. If you notice changes in your child, gently address the subject. Tell him that you’ve noticed that he doesn’t seem to be himself lately and you are available to talk. Young children are very suggestible, so you don’t want to suggest that a certain person did a certain thing. This is a good time, even if he says nothing happened, to take a few minutes and talk to him about inappropriate touching in a general way.

Use Proper Terms to Describe Body Parts. When you talk with your children, be sure to use proper names to label their body parts. Children should never feel like there is anything embarrassing or wrong with their bodies. Explain the difference between good touches and bad touches. You can let your children know that the parts of their body that a bathing suit covers are their private parts. No one but themselves

should be allowed to touch their private parts except in special situations where a trusted parent, doctor, or other specified person needs to examine them, bathe them, or care for them. Let your child know that he should report to you whenever someone touches him in a way that makes him uncomfortable. Let him know it is OK to confide in a trusted teacher or counselor as well.

Promote Open Communication Within Your Family. Teach your children that your family members do not keep secrets from each other and should not ask them to keep secrets from you. Let your children know that it is always OK to tell you anything and you will not overreact. Even if someone threatens to hurt them if they tell, you can handle it. Your children need this reassurance.

Recommended Resources

There are many excellent resources that can help you talk easily with a young child about these sensitive issues.

My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky is a straightforward book that teaches what behaviors are acceptable, what behaviors are unacceptable, and when and to whom a child can talk about uncomfortable behaviors.

Child Protective Services: If your child does reveal that he has experienced some inappropriate behaviors, it’s important for you, the parent, to follow through and ask for help so that you can all get the support you need. You can start by calling your local Child Protective Services office or the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-552-7096 to report what you know or have been told. If there are legal issues to pursue, they can provide guidance. Scheduling an appointment with an experienced and qualified therapist who can help you and your child work through the fear and shame is important as well.

The websites and also have reliable resources and information about the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Marianne Clyde is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Warrenton. Contact her at (540) 347-3797 or read more at and

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