There are a range of signs and symptoms sexually abused children may exhibit, says psychologist Dr Asha Bedar. According to her, parents need to watch out for sudden changes in the child's behaviour and temperament. “Changes in diet and sleep patterns; fall in school performance; sudden nightmares and fears, developing rage and aggression (with other children, toys, animals, etc.), anxiety and sadness; social withdrawal or clingy behaviour; suddenly acting like a much younger child, excessive crying; sudden aches and pains; sudden and frequent gastrointestinal problems; and loss of confidence are all signs to watch out for,” she says.
As far as older children and adolescents are concerned, they may also turn to substance abuse and other risk-taking behaviour as well as turning delinquent. However, the start of these behaviours does not necessarily mean that sexual abuse has occurred — they simply alert parents and caretakers that the child is undergoing strong anxiety.
Bedar says parents, care-givers and other adults can play a very significant role in both preventing child sexual abuse and in providing support to children who have been abused. In addition, she said parents need to be extra vigilant and be concerned if gifts, extra attention and affection may be coming from one adult in particular.
She said it was paramount to talk to children, even to young children about protecting themselves. “This does not mean providing all out sex education; it simply means providing them with enough information to be able to protect themselves from adults who may attempt to harm them,” she points out.
Equally important is keeping the channels of communication between parents and children open so the child can ask questions, seek advice, discuss anxieties and disclose abuse if it occurs.
Reacting angrily, blaming and disbelieving the child are harmful responses that will push the child further away, she warns and that it was critically important to believe that the child is never blamed for the abuse.