What You Need to Know About Spotting and Stopping Child Sex Abuse
Published: April 18, 2022
What do we need in order to spot and stop child sex abuse? We only need eyes to see and ears to hear their pain — and then the courage to act in the face of sexual abuse.
They are in our midst, although often nearly invisible. They may act out or they may withdraw. Maybe they cover up as they try to laugh and fit in with other kids.
They’re children who’ve been, or are being, sexually abused. They are there, often unnoticed, without help, without hope…not because we don’t care about these innocent children, but because we don’t see and may not want to hear about the horror of sexual abuse in our midst. We need to face the reality of child sexual abuse and find ways to effectively reach out with love, hope, and healing to the children and families wounded by this abuse.
Sexual abuse is a problem in every community and every church. The statistics are horrifying. According to the CDC, one in every four girls and at least one in every 13 boys experiences sexual abuse at some point in childhood.
It may seem more comfortable to think that people who harm children in such a hideous way are monsters and certainly not anyone we’d know. Unfortunately, experts tell us that an abuser is usually someone close to the child such as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend, neighbor, teacher, cousin, or older sibling. Abusers look like regular people. They might be well-liked and respected in our communities. They can faithfully attend church and can be wealthy or poor. They’re usually people no one would’ve thought could possibly hurt a child in such a horrendous way.
Signs of Sexual Abuse
While it’s not possible to tell an abuser by outward looks, there are signs children may show to indicate that they may be experiencing sexual abuse. Know what to look for and how to help children and families who are victims of abuse. As you become more alert to signs of abuse, move with caution. Falsely accusing someone of abuse can destroy an innocent person’s life. Don’t just react to something you think you see. Take time to check it out and confirm the truth. Be alert, but be cautious.
Sexual abuse is criminal behavior that the abuser is solely responsible for. According to the American Medical Association, child sexual abuse is “the engagement of a child in sexual activities for which the child is developmentally unprepared and cannot give informed consent. Child sexual abuse is characterized by deception, force, or coercion.”
The Physical, Behavioral, and Verbal Signs to Watch For
Physical signs may include…
- lacerations and bruises.
- irritation, pain, or injury to the genital area.
- difficulty with urination.
- discomfort when sitting.
- torn or bloody underclothing.
- sexually transmitted diseases.
Behavioral signs may include…
- anxiety when approaching the church or nursery area.
- nervous or hostile behavior toward adults.
- sexual self-consciousness.
- acting out of sexual behavior.
- withdrawal from church activities and friends.
Verbal signs may include the following statements…
- I don’t like [name].
- [Name] does things to me when we’re alone.
- I don’t like to be alone with [name].
- [Name] fooled around with me.
Understanding the Signs
While these are common signs a child experiencing sexual abuse may show, any one or even a few signs may not mean a child is being harmed. Keep in mind that while these signs are common, all of us are unique individuals, and each child will respond in different ways.
For example, in one church, a 4-year-old boy arrived in class every two or three weeks and wanted me to hold him. He would curl up, say nothing, and look at nothing for the next one and a half hours. This child faced sexual abuse.
In another church, a young girl who was tremendously clingy and almost never smiled. At first we thought it was just her age, but as this continued, we became concerned. Fortunately, it was just part of the child’s personality and finally, as she grew older, she became less clingy. Thankfully, this girl wasn’t being abused.
A Personal Story
One more example involves a young girl who didn’t tell anyone with words that anything was happening to her. However, the nonverbal signs were abundant. She was anxious and scared, and she isolated herself from others and was completely unable to trust. She buried the memories and pain for many years as it was just too much to deal with. This girl was abused. I know this girl well because I am that girl.
My grandfather was highly respected in our community and attended church faithfully, and he abused me for many years. Although I attended church regularly, no one noticed. It was a different time, and people didn’t even think to notice such a thing. Fortunately for children today, we now know the scope of this horror that’s experienced by so many children and realize the absolute necessity to be alert and ready to help. We must see and hear.
6 Ways to Help the Child
Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler in Josh McDowell’s Handbook on Counseling Youth offer an intentional approach to helping those who’ve been through this type of traumatic experience.
Be slow to speak and quick to listen.
Don’t lecture, but rather be someone the child can cry with, hurt with, and mourn with. Offer love unconditionally.
Help the child understand that you believe him or her, and affirm that the child is an individual with infinite worth.
Point the child to God as the source of healing and wholeness. Help the child turn the responsibility of the abuse from him- or herself onto the perpetrator and to realize this process of healing and recovery will take time.
Allow the child to choose caring people who can encourage and offer a fuller support system. In most states, you must also enlist the involvement of law enforcement and social services. Rather than fearing these people’s involvement, understand that they’re trained professionals who, for the most part, care deeply about children.
Bring a professional Christian counselor into the situation. It’s imperative to invite professionals into this very sensitive situation.
How to Minister to the Family
Too often our response is simply to pretend sexual abuse doesn’t exist and to never deal with it. This forces those wounded by abuse to continue to struggle on their own, and never finding the hope Christ wants to offer them. Instead, your church can help the children and families who’ve gone through such a traumatic experience.
An abused child and his or her family need others to come alongside them to provide support and encouragement as they begin the difficult journey of dealing with the abuse and learning to trust again. Abuse shatters trust. If the children who’ve been abused and their families don’t find help and hope in the church, where will they find it?
In his book Caring for Sexually Abused Children, R. Timothy Kearney identifies a number of struggles families and the church must deal with.
Church members’ gossip about the situation can be very painful for the family, so encourage the church to interact with the family and faithfully pray for them while not taking sides.
Some families isolate themselves because sometimes those trying to help may have the tendency to overcompensate and treat the family as special or different. The family needs to be treated as normally as possible while receiving whatever attention is needed.
Help the child and family deal with feelings of shame and guilt by first identifying the difference between true guilt and false guilt. A victim and his or her family have no reason to feel guilty. The true guilt should lie solely on the shoulders of the perpetrator. Help the family to understand that the child did nothing wrong.
It’s critically important that children and families affected by abuse have people who are willing to take the time to listen intently to their story as they feel able to share it. These families need to be believed without skepticism or judgment. They need people who’ll lovingly pursue them and initiate contact with them, recognizing that simply offering to be available may not be enough.
The help offered will need to endure, just as the pain and struggles do. Abuse has physical and emotional consequences that can be tremendously devastating and traumatic for the child. These can be lifelong and include things such as sexually transmitted diseases, damage to the genitals, bladder control problems, issues of guilt and shame, feelings of low self-esteem, lack of ability to trust others, depression, anxiety, and anger. Families need people who’ll be patient as they work through the physical and spiritual ramifications. Ultimately, they need the church to be real and to become educated about how to properly reach out and effectively care for them.
The horror of child sexual abuse is far too real for so many children in our churches, but thankfully the reality of our God, who loves and cares about us, gives the strength we need to face the truth and provide real help and healing for those who’ve been hurt. We must do all we can to make our ministries as safe as possible, and be alert and ready to help those who’ve been wounded — they are in our midst.
Allie Hayes is a freelance writer and is involved in children’s ministries. Nate Wagner is a counselor and pastor at Sparta Baptist Church in Sparta, Michigan.
For more information about how to identify and help kids in crisis, read “Walking Wounded: How to Recognize When Kids Are in Crisis.”
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