If you are parenting a child who has been removed from his or her family, you may not know for sure whether or not the child in your care has been sexually abused
. Child welfare agencies usually share all known information about your child’s history with you; however, there may be no prior record of abuse, and many children do not disclose past abuse until they feel safe. For this reason, kinship caregivers or foster
or adoptive parents
are sometimes the first to learn that sexual abuse has occurred. Even when there is no documentation of prior abuse, you may suspect something happened because of your child’s behavior.
Signs of Sexual Abuse
There are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes normal sexual development and what behaviors might signal sexual abuse. Children show a range of sexual behaviors and sexual curiosity at each developmental level, and their curiosity, interest, and experimentation may occur gradually, based on their development. However, children who have been sexually abused may demonstrate behaviors that are unusual, excessive, aggressive, or explicit. There is no one specific sign or behavior that can be considered proof that sexual abuse has definitively occurred, but there are a number of signs that are suggestive of abuse.
Factors Affecting the Impact of Sexual Abuse
If a professional has determined that a child in your care has been a victim of sexual abuse, or if you continue to suspect that the child in your care has been abused
, it is important to understand how abusive experiences may affect children’s behavior.
All children who have been sexually abused have had their physical and emotional boundaries violated or crossed in some way. Because of this, children may feel a lack of trust and safety with others. Children who have been abused may come to view the world as unsafe, and adults as manipulative and untrustworthy. As with other types of abuse or trauma, many factors influence how children think and feel about the abuse, how the abuse affects them, and how their recovery progresses.
It is very important for children to understand that they are not to blame for the abuse they experienced. Your family’s immediate response to learning about the sexual abuse and ongoing acceptance of what the child has told you will play a critical role in your child’s ability to recover and lead a healthy life.
Some parents may feel grave concern when children act out sexually with peers or younger children and may question why a child who has been abused, and suffered from that experience, could repeat it with someone else. Children who have experienced sexual abuse need an opportunity to process their own abuse in therapy or with a trusted trained adult to understand their thoughts and feelings and to have a chance to ask questions and achieve some kind of closure. Acting-out behaviors usually indicate that some traumatic impact of their abuse is still active and signals a need for additional attention. Responding in calm, informed ways while seeking appropriate professional help
for children whose acting out persists will be important to resolving children’s sexual behavior problems. The most important lesson is learning not to over- or under-respond to problem situations and finding just the right balance of guidance and empathic care.
If your child has a history of prior abuse, it’s important to know that he or she may be vulnerable to acting out victim or victimizing behaviors. Some children may be more likely to be bullied
or exploited, and others may be angry and aggressive towards others. You may need to pay special attention to protecting some children while setting firm limits on others. In addition, some children act out when memories of their own abuse are triggered. Triggers can happen unexpectedly, for example, by seeing someone who looks like the abuser or in a situation such as being alone in a public restroom, or by a variety of circumstances that occur in daily life. Other triggers might include the scent of a particular cologne or shampoo or the texture of a particular piece of clothing or blanket.
In addition, there are cultural differences among children with regard to their comfort level with physical proximity, physical affection, bathing and nudity practices, hygiene, and other factors that can lead to problem situations. There are many cultures in which parents never discuss sexuality
directly with their children, or in which any type of sexual activity can be viewed as unacceptable or punishable. Children may thus carry shame and guilt about their bodies.
Establishing Family Guidelines for Safety and Privacy
There are things you can do to help ensure that any child visiting or living in your home experiences a structured, safe, and nurturing environment. Some children who have been sexually abused may have a heightened sensitivity to certain situations. Making your home a comfortable place for children who have been sexually abused can mean changing some habits or patterns of family life. Incorporating some of these guidelines may also help reduce foster or adoptive parents’ vulnerability to abuse allegations by children living with them.
Consider whether the following tips may be helpful in your family’s situation:
- Make sure every family member’s comfort level with touching, hugging, and kissing is respected. Do not force touching on children who seem uncomfortable being touched. Encourage children to respect the comfort and privacy of others.
- Be cautious with playful touch, such as play fighting and tickling. These may be uncomfortable or scary reminders of sexual abuse to some children.
- Help children learn the importance of privacy. Remind children to knock before entering bathrooms and bedrooms, and encourage children to dress and bathe themselves if they are able. Teach children about privacy and respect by modeling this behavior and talking about it openly.
- Keep adult sexuality private. Teenage siblings may need reminders about what is permitted in your home when boyfriends and girlfriends are present. Adult caretakers will also need to pay special attention to intimacy and sexuality when young children with a history of sexual abuse are underfoot.
- Be aware of and limit sexual messages received through the media. Children who have experienced sexual abuse can find sexual content overstimulating or disturbing. It may be helpful to monitor music and music videos, as well as television programs, video games, and movies containing nudity, sexual activity, or sexual language. Limit access to grownup magazines and monitor children’s Internet use. In addition, limit violent graphic or moving images in TV or video games.
- Supervise and monitor children’s play. If you know that your child has a history of sexual abuse, it will be important to supervise and monitor his or her play with siblings or other children in your home. This means having children play within your view and not allowing long periods of time when children are unsupervised. Children may have learned about sexual abuse from others and may look for times to explore these activities with other children if left unsupervised. It will be important for parents and caretakers to be cautious but avoid feeling paranoid.
- Prepare and develop comfort with language about sexual boundaries. It will be important for you to be proactive in developing and practicing responses to children who exhibit sexual behavior problems. Many parents feel uncomfortable addressing the subject so they ignore or avoid direct discussions. Because there are so many differences in the messages parents want to convey to their children, it is useful to prepare ahead and be proactive. If your child has touching problems (or any sexually aggressive behaviors), you may need to take additional steps to help ensure safety for your child as well as his or her peers. Consider how these tips may apply to your own situation:
- With friends. If your child has known issues with touching other children, you will need to ensure supervision when he or she is playing with friends, whether at your home or theirs. Sleepovers may not be a good idea when children have touching problems.
- At school. You may wish to inform your child’s school of any inappropriate sexual behavior, to ensure an appropriate level of supervision. Often this information can be kept confidential by a school counselor or other personnel.
- In the community. Supervision becomes critical any time children with sexual behavior problems are with groups of children.
Impact of Sexual Abuse on the Family
Being a kinship caregiver or a foster or adoptive parent to a child who has experienced sexual abuse can be stressful to marriages and relationships. Parenting in these situations may require some couples to be more open with each other and their children about sexuality in general and sexual problems specifically. If one parent is more involved in addressing the issue than another, the imbalance can create difficulties in the parental relationship. A couple’s sexual relationship can also be affected, if sex begins to feel like a troubled area of the family’s life. If and when these problems emerge, it is often helpful to get professional advice.
In addition, if one parent was more in favor of adopting, and the other parent merely complied, general stress can be added to the couple when children have a range of problem behaviors that require attention. Some parents develop resentful and angry or withdrawn feelings toward foster or adoptive children who take up a lot of time and energy (for example, children who need extra monitoring and supervision or transport to weekly therapy appointments).
Parents can also feel stress because the child’s siblings (birth, foster, or adoptive) may be exposed to new or focused attention on sexuality that can be challenging for them. If one child is acting out sexually, you may need to talk with siblings about what they see, think, and feel, as well as how to respond. Children may also need to be coached on what (and how much) to say about their sibling’s problems to their friends. If your children see that you are actively managing the problem, they will feel more secure and will worry less.
When one child has been sexually abused, parents often become very protective of their other children. It is important to find a balance between reasonable worry and overprotectiveness. Useful strategies to prevent further abuse may include teaching children to stand up for themselves, talking with them about being in charge of their bodies, and fostering open communication with your children.