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Protecting Against Child Sexual Abuse

From Catholic News Service

With the estimated 100,000 reported cases of child sexual abuse each year believed to represent just the tip of the iceberg, parents may wonder how to protect their children and what potential trouble signs to look for.

Experts emphasize that most child sex abuse is perpetrated not by a shadowy stranger but by someone the child knows and often trusts -- a relative, family friend, teacher, community leader or even a priest.

"It is important to remember that physical force is often not necessary to engage a child in sexual activity," says the American Psychological Association on its Web site. "Children are trusting and dependent and will often do what is asked of them to gain approval and love."

To counteract that too-trusting nature, parents need to give their children some basic sexual education, with the proper names for body parts and a message that no one should touch the "private" parts of their body, unless necessary to treat an illness or injury.

For younger children, the experts say, "private" body parts can be summed up as anything covered by a bathing suit.

Stop Child Abuse and Neglect, or SCAN, a program of the National Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Ala., recommends teaching children to be wary both of strangers and of unusual behavior in the people they know.

"Teach them to listen to their feelings and that it is OK to say no if any adults (including family members) ask them to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable," the SCAN program says on its Web site.

Other basic safety rules also apply -- like knowing your child's friends, using a buddy system when children walk home from school or other activities, teaching children to refuse anything from strangers and to not give strangers directions or help; and using secret codes with your children to screen out those who might falsely say they are sent by the parents.

"Teach your children about appropriate and inappropriate secrets and that some secrets have to be told if children and parents are to be kept safe," SCAN recommends.

But if the unthinkable occurs and a child is victimized by sexual abuse, how can a parent best respond and help the child to heal?

"When a child tells someone about sexual abuse, a supportive, caring response is the first step in getting help for the child and re-establishing their trust in adults," says a fact sheet from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "The response to the disclosure of sexual abuse is critical to the child's ability to resolve and heal the trauma of sexual abuse."

Even when a child has only hinted at sexual abuse, the academy says, parents must show that they "take seriously what the child is saying" and assure the child that he or she has done the right thing in telling and is not to blame for the abuse.

If a child is not able to share his or her experiences, there are many behavioral and physical warning signs that might mean a child has been sexually abused. These include: nightmares, trouble sleeping or fear of the dark; loss of appetite or trouble eating or swallowing; sudden mood swings; fear of certain people or places; a continuing stomach illness with no identifiable reason; new words for private body parts; references to a new older friend or a "secret" the child has with an adult or older child; or simulated sexual activities with toys or other children.

Stop It Now!, a nonprofit organization in Haydenville, Mass., that works to end child sexual abuse by helping abusers and their victims, said any one of the warning signs does not necessarily mean a child has been abused, "but several of them mean that you should begin asking questions."

"Some of these behavioral signs can show up at other stressful times in a child's life such as divorce, the death of a family member, friend or pet, or when there are problems in school, as well as when abuse is involved," says the organization on its Web site.

Stop It Now! offers further tips and information through its toll-free help line at (888) PREVENT.