Children who experience sexual abuse may describe what happened to them in many ways. When a child talks about abuse, it is called a disclosure. Disclosures can be purposeful or accidental. Purposeful disclosures happen when a child tells someone else, such as a friend, caregiver, or other adult. Accidental disclosures often happen when someone else encourages a child to talk or the child doesn’t intend to tell.
Accidental disclosures are common with preschool aged children. Because these children are younger, their disclosures may come out through role playing, or drawing. Accidental disclosures can also be seen when a child displays ‘warning sign’ behaviors. Some of these signs include fear, anxiety, sadness, and acting out with no apparent cause. The child may also have mood swings and act afraid around the abuser.
Disclosing abuse is a process. A child may disclose some part of abuse to ‘test the waters’ and see how the adult reacts. As a child feels more comfortable talking about the abuse, he or she may disclose more information. Sometimes a child may take back the disclosure if their caregiver becomes upset or if they think the abuser may get into trouble. It is important to reassure the child that the abuse is not their fault and they did the right thing by telling.
When a child discloses in small parts it does not mean the child is lying. The safer a child feels, the more likely they are to talk about what happened. It is also important to understand that some children may not tell an adult about the abuse. It is not the caregiver’s fault if the child chooses not to tell. Sometimes the offender will threaten to harm the child if he or she tells. Sometimes children are afraid of upsetting their caregivers, which is why they may tell a friend or a teacher. All of this is normal. Caregivers should not blame themselves if abuse happens and a child chooses not to tell them immediately.
Children may also show sexual behaviors. These can include sexualized playing, sexual experimenting (i.e., masturbation that cannot be redirected), or drawing sexual acts. It is normal for children to explore their bodies, and some level of masturbation is normal in children. However, excessive behaviors are signs for concern when these acts cannot be redirected or when they increase with intensity.
Childhood sexual abuse rarely leaves physical changes to the body. However, there are some subtle signs that caregivers may notice. Physical signs of sexual abuse such as stomachaches, soiling of underwear with stool by children who are past the age of toilet training (encopresis), involuntary urination, especially at night (enuresis), or soreness in the genitals. A list of warning signs for sexual abuse in children can be found below.
Disclosures can take many forms. In the end, it is about a child’s need to let someone know that he or she is being has been sexually abused. The most important thing a caregiver can do when a child discloses abuse is to be supportive and let the child know you believe them. Don’t ask too many questions. Listen if the child is willing to talk to you and reassure the child that they are not in trouble.
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