What You Can Do to Raise Awareness of Child Abuse

Two parents comfort and console distressed childMy therapy practice is in Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest counties, with some of the best schools, in the nation. It is diverse and densely populated with well-educated residents who are overwhelmingly employed in business and professional services. Fairfax County is home to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and is only a short distance from the nation’s government and leading policy makers. The town in which I work was voted one of the best cities for raising families in the state of Virginia.

Despite the wealth, access to education, and proximity to the country’s main resources for enforcing security in our nation, not all children here are safe. Like children everywhere, they are vulnerable to the atrocities of child abuse.

In 2016, SafeSpot, a local children’s advocacy center that supports families and facilitates the investigation of child sexual and severe physical abuse allegations, served more than 375 children who were impacted by abuse, the overwhelming majority of whom alleged sexual abuse. SafeSpot also worked with children who were traumatized by witnessing domestic violence.

Most people would agree child abuse is a heartbreaking issue, yet many believe it’s not something that could happen to anyone they know or love. On the contrary, child abuse happens everywhere—in all types of homes, families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, and communities. No population, culture, or socioeconomic group is immune. Child abuse is likely present somewhere in your very own network.

National statistics show more than 700,000 children are abused annually in the United States, with 90% of alleged abusers in some way related to the victims. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) reports that every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Every eight minutes, that victim is a child. One in four women and one in six men are sexually abused as children.

People who abuse children are not just creepy strangers who lurk behind bushes or abduct children in vans. They often include people we encounter every day, people their victims know, love, and trust. People who abuse can be grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, moms, dads, teachers, coaches, mentors, neighbors, and family friends.

The effects of child abuse are devastating and typically long-lasting, including a lifetime of potential struggles with mental health issues, low self-esteem, increased risk of drug abuse/addiction, and patterns of dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships.

The realities of child abuse are alarming, but developing an awareness of the problem brings the increased ability to prevent or at least identify when child abuse occurs.

The effects of child abuse are devastating and typically long-lasting, including a lifetime of potential struggles with mental health issues, low self-esteem, increased risk of drug abuse/addiction, and patterns of dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships.

Tips for Parents to Prevent and Address Child Abuse

  • Educate yourself on the statistics of child abuse and understand that even your own children could be at risk. You may know somebody who is or has the potential to be abusive, so know where to go or who to call in your community if at any time you suspect or discover a child is being hurt or threatened.
  • Listen and validate when a child reveals abuse. Very rarely do children lie about abuse. Try to remain open, calm, curious, and nonjudgmental if a child reports or alludes to having been abused.
  • I cannot stress enough how important it is to remain calm. It’s obviously gut-wrenching to hear your child may have been hurt, and it’s further challenging and complicated when the allegations are made against somebody you know and trust. But your initial reaction may determine whether the child shuts down and bottles up the violation, or reports and ultimately ends the trauma to seek healing.
  • Often, children will report only parts of what happened or may pretend it happened to someone else in order to gauge how an adult will react. Be patient and allow the child to feel safe enough to continue opening up. Responding emotionally or with judgment, blame, or disbelief may cause the child to shut down and avoid talking about the abuse.
  • From early on, begin facilitating conversations with your children, letting them know they can come to you about anything, no matter what anyone else says. Abuse is hard for children to comprehend, let alone talk about. They often internalize a sense of fear, embarrassment, and shame, and wind up believing they are at fault or somehow to blame for what happened. Further, people who abuse frequently coerce silence via emotional abuse, warnings the victim won’t be believed, and by threats of harm to the victim or their loved ones. Teach your children it’s your job to protect them, not the other way around, and demonstrate unconditional love so they feel safe enough to talk to you.
  • Use age-appropriate language and find moments to educate your children about their bodies, about appropriate versus inappropriate touch, and about sexuality as they get older. Sex and sexuality are often awkward, uncomfortable, or taboo topics in many families; however, it’s important that you, as the adult, demonstrate and model that embarrassing or difficult topics are still important and do not need to be off-limits or avoided.
  • While it’s unhealthy to isolate or shelter our children, we can be selective about what daycares, schools, and activities they participate in. Ensure that background checks are done on any individuals working directly with children, and advocate for staff trainings on the prevention, recognition, and reporting of child abuse. Communicate regularly with your children about the other adults and peers in their lives.
  • The signs of abuse are not always easy to recognize without hindsight; however, step in and talk to your child if you notice any emotional or behavioral changes, such as increased anxiety, withdrawal, isolating, rebellion, or angry outbursts. It’s important to explore any signs of physical abuse, including bruises, rashes, or swelling. Pay attention to physical problems, such as urinary tract infections, or frequent complaints of things like headaches or stomachaches that aren’t medically explained. Understand it’s normal for children to be inquisitive and exploratory regarding gender and sexuality, but watch out for any sexual behavior, language, or curiosity that does not seem age-appropriate.

Help for Perpetrators of Child Abuse

If you are someone who has abused or believe you have the potential to abuse a child, I urge you to get help from a mental health professional who can assist you in exploring the roots of this insidious problem. While most children who are abused do not go on to repeat the cycle of abuse, many abusers were, in fact, victims of child abuse themselves. This history of abuse needs to be dealt with so you can attain a life free from the guilt, shame, and destruction of hurting others.

Spreading Awareness of Child Abuse Prevention

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Prevent Child Abuse America has designated the pinwheel as the national symbol for child abuse prevention. Please help spread awareness of the realities of child abuse by displaying a pinwheel in your workplace, organization, or community. The more we talk about and spread awareness regarding the realities of child abuse, the closer we come to ending it.

References:

  1. National statistics on child abuse. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/media-room/media-kit/national-statistics-child-abuse
  2. Pinwheels for prevention. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://preventchildabuse.org/resource/pinwheels-for-prevention
  3. Scope of the problem: Statistics. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Acer

    April 3rd, 2017 at 9:33 AM

    any child can be vulnerable, any community can be vulnerable. It rarely is about how much money someone has or what schools they have access too.

  • Judith

    April 4th, 2017 at 8:16 AM

    The last thing that you want to do is turn a blind eye when it can be staring you right in the face that there is something wrong with the situation. I think that you have to be careful and wise about making accusations but you also have to keep the welfare of the child in mind. If there are any suspicions, then it is possible that there is a reason for that. Don’t be the one who buries your head in the sand simply because you don’t want to get involved. Our children deserve better than that.

  • paul

    April 5th, 2017 at 11:10 AM

    I will confess that it is not always all that easy to see past what you believe would be the truth.
    Sometimes families have that look and you think that no, this can’t be happening to someone in this family. But put all of your preconceived notions to the side and actually allow yourself to see the truth as it is presenting itself to you. Follow your instincts.

  • Margo A.

    June 9th, 2017 at 4:30 AM

    I have seen children you start taking drugs due to abuse in their childhood. Their confidence gets to lowest and they feel scared in crowd. Provide knowledge to your children about date rape drug testing so that they can avail it in case of confusion.

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