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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Paulsen, MA, LMFT, RPT-S

Signs A Child Has Experienced Abuse

“Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.” ― Dave Pelzer, A Child Called "It"

As a follow up to my previous article, “Signs A Child Is Being Groomed for Sexual Abuse”, I wanted to talk about signs a child may have already been abused; including what to watch for and how you should handle it if you suspect abuse.

First, I want to reiterate the statistics on sexual and physical abuse:

1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.

1 in 14 children have experienced physical abuse.

There are various behavior changes worth noting in children that could potentially be signs abuse has already occurred. Please be aware that each of these signs by itself is not an indicator of abuse, but having multiple behaviors from the following list may be cause for action. Likewise, most behaviors are on a continuum of normality. Too much or too little of a behavior could be considered abnormal; again if coupled with other behaviors.

1. Withdrawn and wanting to be alone or child becomes clingy and does not want you to leave. Child may also not want to be left alone with person who they used to be comfortable with (which does not necessarily indicate this person was the abuser but the child does not feel safe with or trust others).

2. Mood swings including uncontrollable crying or fits of unexplained anger and rage.

3. For older children, self-harming in various forms such as burning or cutting.

4. Changes in eating habits: eating too much or too little.

5. Changes in sleeping habits: sleeping too much or not enough. Difficulty sleeping and increased nightmares or night terrors may also be signs.

6. Recurring bedwetting while sleeping or soiling pants during the day which was not an issue previously.

7. Sexually acting out with toys or objects.

8. Unexplainable fear of various objects, people, or places.

9. Unexplained bruises, cuts, red marks, etc.

10. Pain during urination or bowel movements.

11. Running away from home.

12. Decline in academic performance and grades.

If you believe your child is exhibiting multiple signs listed above you should first ask yourself if your child has experienced any other adjustments, such as moving to a new home; changing schools; parents separating/divorcing; a family member, close friend, or pet passing away; problems with friends at school including severe bullying; or other traumatic events such as experiencing a natural disaster or being strongly affected by a news story seen on television.

If you cannot identify any life stressors or adjustments in your child’s life but are noticing multiple signs from the above list, you should consider talking to your child. This conversation should start by stating you have noticed some changes with them and then listing them in a nonjudgmental way. The point of this conversation would be for them to know you are concerned, but not mad at them, or scared! If they sense anger, hostility, nervousness, or judgment, they will be unlikely to open up to you. If they sense you are caring, calm, and concerned, they still may not open up to you but the likelihood is greater.

After this conversation you can ask the child if anything has happened recently that has upset them. If the child insists there is nothing wrong, maybe there isn’t, but if your gut tells you there is it would be a good idea to schedule an appointment with a therapist. Please know just because a child is in therapy, it does not mean they will immediately disclose any abuse they have experienced and the therapist will not pressure the child for this information. A therapist will work to build a relationship with the child first and if the child at any point feels comfortable, and if the child has in fact experienced abuse, it is possible they will eventually share this information with you or their therapist.

In closing, like I stated in the previous article, if your gut tells you something is wrong, something is probably wrong! Always listen to your instincts.

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