By Allison Wedell Schumacher
If you’re a parent or early childhood educator, you don’t need me to tell you that every child is different, meaning behavior that signifies a problem in one child may signify absolutely nothing in another. Is she suddenly refusing to eat green beans, which were her favorite food up until last week? Maybe she’s coming down with the stomach flu or some terrible allergy. Or, maybe her best friend at preschool told her green beans are what vegetarian zombies eat and no normal person should touch them (yes, I’ve actually heard this one).
Nobody Knows Them Better
Vegetarian zombies notwithstanding, my point is that although this blog post is about recognizing signs of abuse in young children, what it’s really about is recognizing signs of abuse in your young child. And since no one knows your young child better than you do, no one else is better qualified to recognize a red flag than you.
Depending on your temperament, this could get you dangerously close to paranoia. Believe me, I get it. I slept (although “worried” is probably a more accurate verb) on the floor beside my daughter’s crib when, as an infant, she got her first cold. That kind of paranoia is not what I’m hoping to invoke here, which is why, before I provide you with a list of possible signs and symptoms to keep an eye out for, I’m going to tell you the single best way to find out what’s going on in your child’s life.
Sorry. It’s not a magic bullet. You had probably already guessed it, but it’s so unbelievably important it bears constant reiteration: The key to keeping children safe is talking with them.
This actually comes in two parts, especially for young children:
- Keeping the lines of communication open.
- Giving children the vocabulary to tell you something if they need to.
Part 1: We’re Listening
My husband and I have personally found that the best way to keep the lines of communication open with our daughter is to make it clear to her that we’re listening to all the trivial, unimportant stuff (“Tara’s mom bought her new Sketchers, but she doesn’t like the color so she’s not gonna wear them!”). That way, she knows she can tell us the important stuff as well (“Miss Mindy gave us a big secret and told us not to tell,” after a small heart attack, I calmly confirmed that the secret was not a touching secret or anything that could hurt my daughter. It turned out to be a secret art project she was making for her dad and me for Christmas. We then had a long talk about the difference between secrets and surprises.)
Part 2: The Right Words
Studies show that sometimes the reason young children often don’t disclose sexual abuse is because they don’t have the vocabulary to do so. This is why it’s important that young children know, for example, the correct words for their private body parts. Having these conversions frequently makes them less uncomfortable and less stigmatized.
Now that we’ve talked about talking, let’s talk about symptoms that could signify abuse in younger children. Below is a summary of signs of abuse enumerated in a Committee for Children article on the same subject, which is part of a greater suite of short videos and articles all about how to talk to your child in ways that can keep him or her safe from sexual abuse. If you see these symptoms, talk to your child about them. If they persist, discuss them with your doctor or the counselor at your child’s school.
Here are some examples of behavioral signs to watch out for that could indicate your child has experienced abuse or some other trauma or stressor:
- Pretending to be younger or expressing a desire to be younger
- Sudden fear at being with a certain person or certain type of person (men with beards, for example)
- Change in attitude toward touching (not wanting hugs, for example)
- Sexual content in play or drawings
- Anxiety, anger, or depression
Similarly, there are certain physical signs that could indicate sexual abuse or other trauma for your child:
- Change in appetite
- Change in sleep habits
- Soiling or wetting clothes and/or bed
- Pain or itching in genital area
Take a Deep Breath
None of us wants to imagine our child experiencing something so awful and traumatic as sexual abuse. For me, that makes it tempting to stick my head in the sand and pretend it’s not going to happen at all. But I know it’s a very real danger, and the best way to avoid it is to talk about it with my child. And if the worst does happen, I want to know the signs so that I can get help for her immediately and make sure it stops.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon and Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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