Child Abuse and What To Do

Sexual Abuse

The number of child sexual abuse cases reported in a given year has reached as high as 80,000, but the number of unreported instances is far greater. Many children who suffer from sexual abuse are afraid to tell anyone what has happened. The legal procedure of validating an episode is also difficult. Short- and long -term emotional and psychological damage can be devastating for victims of sexual abuse -- whose problem is not identified, stopped and treated with professional help.

Child sexual abuse can take place within the family, by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative. It can also occur outside the home, for example, by a friend, neighbor, child care person, teacher or random molester. When sexual abuse occurs, the child develops a variety of distressing feelings, thoughts and other problems.

Often there are no physical signs of child abuse ... or signs that only a physician could detect, such as changes in the genital or anal areas.

The behavior of sexually abused children may include:

  • Unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature

  • Sleep problems, nightmares

  • Depression or withdrawal from friends or family

  • Seductiveness

  • Statements that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or fear that there is something wrong with them in the genital area

  • Refusal to go to school or delinquency

  • Secretiveness

  • Aspects of sexual molestation in drawings, games or fantasies

  • Unusual aggressiveness

  • Suicidal behavior

  • Other radical behavior changes

from Facts for Families (Volume 1, Number 9)

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

3615 Wisconsin Avenue NW

Washington, D.C. 20016

Phone: 202.966.7300


Responding to Child Sexual Abuse

When a child tells an adult that he or she has been sexually abused, the adult may feel uncomfortable and may not know what to say or do. The following guidelines are for responding to children who have been sexually abused.

  • If a child even hints in a vague way that sexual abuse has occurred, encourage him or her to talk freely; don't make judgmental comments

  • Show that you understand and take seriously what the child is saying; the response to the disclosure of sexual abuse is critical to the child's ability to resolve the trauma of the abuse

  • Assure the child that he or she did the right thing by telling; a child who is close to the abuser may feel guilty revealing the secret

  • Tell the child that he or she is not to blame for the abuse; most children, attempting to make sense out of the abuse, will believe that they caused it or may view it as a form of punishment for imagined or real wrongdoings

  • Finally, offer the child protection, and promise that you will promptly take steps to see that the abuse stops

Report any suspicion of child abuse. If the abuse is within the family, report it to your local Child Protection Agency. If the abuse is outside of the family, report it to the police or district attorney's office. Individuals reporting in good faith are immune from prosecution. The agency receiving the report will conduct an evaluation and will take action to protect the child.

Parents should consult with their pediatrician or family physician, who may refer them to a physician who specializes in evaluating and treating sexual abuse. The examining doctor will evaluate the child's condition and treat any physical problem related to the abuse, gather evidence to help protect the child, and reassure the child that he or she is alright.

Usually, the child should also have a psychiatric evaluation to find out how the abuse has affected him or her, and to determine whether ongoing professional help is necessary for the child to deal with the trauma. The mental health professional can also provide support to other family members who may be upset by the abuse.

from Facts for Families, Number 28 (October 1992)

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

3615 Wisconsin Avenue NW

Washington, D.C. 20016

Phone: 202.966.7300


Physical Abuse

The statistics on physical child abuse are alarming. Of the estimated hundreds of thousands of children battered each year by a parent or close relative, thousands die. Battering is not the only kind of child abuse. Many children are victims of neglect, sexual or emotional abuse. For those who survive, the emotional trauma remains long after the bruises have healed. Communities and the courts recognize that these emotional hidden bruises can be treated.

Often the severe emotional damage to abused children does not surface until years later, when the abused child becomes an abusing parent. An adult who was abused as a child often has trouble establishing intimate personal relationships. Without proper treatment, they can be damaged for life.

Children who have been abused may display:

  • A poor self-image

  • Inability to depend on, trust or love others

  • Aggressive and disruptive -- sometimes illegal -- behavior

  • Passive and withdrawn behavior, fear of entering into new relationships or activities

  • School failure

  • Serious drug and alcohol abuse

The mental health professional is able to treat the whole child, medically as well as emotionally. The family can be helped to learn new ways of support and communication with one another. Through treatment, the abused child begins to regain a sense of self-confidence and trust. In all kinds of child abuse, the child and the family can benefit from the extensive evaluation and care by a mental health professional.

from Facts for Families, Number 5 (October 1992)

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

3615 Wisconsin Avenue NW

Washington, D.C. 20016

Phone: 202.966.7300

If you or someone you know appears to have been sexually or physically abused, call for help.