Contributor: Eva Kubiczek-Love, MD
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It’s hard to imagine anyone intentionally hurting a child, yet a report of child abuse happens every ten seconds in the U.S. Sadly enough, most kids know their abusers and are often afraid to report what is happening to them, so they might not tell anyone. This is why it’s especially important to know the signs of child abuse.
What is child abuse?
The laws vary from state to state as to what defines child abuse but in general, any intentional harm or maltreatment to a child under 18 years old is considered both child abuse and a crime by the law. Child abuse can take many forms that can occur at the same time, including:
- Physical abuse: when a child purposely physically injured or intentionally put at risk by another person.
- Sexual abuse: when a child is raped, forced to perform a sexual act or forced to participate in an act to arouse the abuser. Examples include making children undress, showing children pornographic material or fondling a child’s genitals.
- Neglect: when the behavior by the caregiver results in physical or emotional harm and can include failure to provide adequate food, shelter, affection, supervision, education or medical care.
- Emotional abuse: means hurting the child’s emotional well-being and injures their sense of self-worth. It can be verbal but can also include ignoring, rejecting or isolating a child.
- Medical abuse: when someone intentionally tries to make a child sick, placing him or her in danger and in need of medical care.
Profile of an abuser:
“Stranger danger” gets a lot of attention in the media. It’s something parents often think and talk about. Of course, we need to teach children that if someone claims to know their parents and offers to give them a ride, they shouldn’t do so, and they should call an adult.
Parents need to realize, however, that the perpetrator of sexual abuse is usually someone the child already knows: a family member or a coach, teacher, or family friend. It might be their piano teacher or someone who leads other after-school activities, such as scouts.
Signs of abuse
Signs of abuse aren’t always obvious. Specific signs and symptoms depend on the type of abuse and can widely vary.
Red flags can include:
- Unexplained injuries — Injuries that don’t match the given explanation or untreated medical or dental problems. These could be a sign of physical abuse.
- Unusual sexualized behaviors — Also, don’t ignore unusual physical symptoms, especially in the genital areas. If a child has vaginal bleeding or discharge that seems unusual, or complains about being in a lot of pain, see their pediatrician. It’s normal for children to show curiosity about their sexual body parts. However, if they start showing behaviors that seem more mature, that you might see in a pornographic film, or make age-inappropriate statements about sex, those are red flags that the child has been exposed to something unhealthy, or possibly molested.
- Changes in behavior — A child who was once outgoing may become withdrawn. A child who loved a certain activity may lose interest in it or he or she may develop a sudden fear of certain places or a person.
In addition, children who witness these crimes also may show similar signs. Keep in mind, however, that the presence of these warning signs doesn’t necessarily mean a child is being abused. It’s possible that the symptoms are caused by another stressful situation.
If you suspect abuse, what to do next
Once you suspect that abuse is happening, you need to act to protect the child from any additional harm and seek help immediately.
Here are some helpful tips:
- If you suspect a child is being abused, contact your local child protective agency, police, or hospital. if the child needs immediate medical attention, call 911 or your local emergency hotline. You may also contact the Child Help National Child Abuse hotline 24 hours a day at 800-422-4453. You also can ask your pediatrician for help.
- If you think you are at risk for abusing your child or think you may have abused your child, please contact a friend, relative, or health professional and make sure your child is somewhere safe, away from you. You may need a counselor to help you understand your feelings and help you find ways to work through them.
- If you suspect that someone you know is abusing a child, you should keep the child away from the abuser until the authorities are notified. If you think the person may see the child in the future, make sure all further contact is supervised. Never threaten the suspect abuser or take the law into your own hands. Let the legal system make the decision and decide the appropriate punishment.
How you can help
You can help break the silence and end a child’s pain and suffering. By doing so, you are protecting him or her from the possible, lasting effects of abuse, such as psychological problems, substance abuse and the work to break the cycle of violence that often occurs with victims of abuse.
With sexual abuse, there’s a lot of different emotions involved for children, such as guilt and embarrassment. Keep lines of communication open with your child, so if something were to happen, he or she would feel comfortable telling you or another trusted adult.
Having regular “check-in” conversations is a good idea. Even as early as age 4 or 5, it’s OK to broach the subject of body parts with your child. You can point to various parts and say, “What’s this? It’s your elbow, your knee.”
Once children reference their sexual parts, you can say, “What if somebody wanted to touch that? What would you do?” Then encourage them to tell you if it happens.
Keep these conversations positive to avoid anxiety. And continue to have them, even with older kids or teenagers. Let your children know you’re not there to judge them, but to help them.