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Parenting a Sexually Abused Child

Parenting a child who has been sexually abused is not easy. A child who has been sexually abused may develop symptoms that can be frustrating for the family.

It is important that you do not see your child's behavior as being purposefully bad or naughty. These behaviors are often reactions to being sexually abused. Try to separate your feelings for your child from your reactions to the child's behavior. Let your child know that some of the things he does are not OK but that you still love him.

The symptoms most often seen can be divided into three types: fearful behaviors, sexual behaviors, and aggressive behaviors.

Fearful Behaviors

Fearful behaviors may be more common where physical pain, violence, or threats have been part of the abuse. Signs of fear you may see in your child include:

  • Having nightmares
  • Being on guard all the time or startling easily
  • Fearing a certain person
  • Fearing one type of person (for example, men with beards)
  • Having trouble concentrating due to worry and not doing well in school
  • Withdrawing from family or friends
  • Acting younger than his age (thumbsucking, bedwetting, baby talk).

As a parent you should:

  • Accept your child's fears as real fears.
  • Encourage your child to return gradually to her normal activities.
  • Give your child choices in situations where she is afraid. For example, if your child is afraid of the dark, ask if she would rather sleep with a night-light on or have the door open.
  • Reassure your child that you will protect her as much as you can.

You should not:

  • Force your child to do things he is really afraid of.
  • Allow your child's fears to control his life or your life.
  • Punish your child for being afraid.
  • Tell your child his fears are silly or stupid.

Sexual Behaviors

A sexually abused child may act sexually because:

  • He has learned it is a way to please people.
  • He may confuse sexual behavior with affection.
  • He may see it as a way to be "in charge", unlike when he was sexually abused.
  • He may have learned that sexual touch can feel good.

Sexual behaviors include:

  • Increased or excessive masturbation
  • Putting objects inside their genitals
  • Touching other children in a sexual way, particularly children younger or smaller than they are
  • Being overly affectionate or seductive with adults.

As a parent you should:

  • Teach your child that it is important to keep private parts private. Make clear rules about not touching others' private parts.
  • Gently remind your child that no one likes to be touched against their will.
  • Depending on the child's age, talk about healthy sex and the relationship between sex and love.
  • Learn what are natural and normal sexual behaviors for children at different ages.
  • Supervise your child’s play. Make every effort to protect your child from further abuse. A child showing sexual behaviors is at high risk for further abuse.

Aggressive Behaviors

There are several ways that your child may act out anger:

  • Getting frustrated very easily
  • Throwing temper tantrums
  • Hitting or fighting other children
  • Setting fires
  • Abusing animals
  • Cutting or burning himself

As a parent you should:

  • Make clear rules about not hitting others or destroying property.
  • Create healthy ways of releasing anger, such as exercise or artworks. For example, you could ask your child to paint a picture of why he is mad.
  • Use consistent, fair consequences for aggressive behavior.

Do not hit your child as punishment. This is confusing to the child. Use time-outs or other ways to correct behavior.

Fearful, sexual, and aggressive behaviors may be seen in sexually abused children. However, they can also be seen in children after a divorce, physical abuse, death in the family, or seeing violence. Some symptoms can simply be a part of growing up.

If your child has been sexually abused, contact a mental health professional. Working with a professional can help the child and also families who are dealing with the effects of sexual abuse.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-11-05
Last reviewed: 2012-11-05
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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