Recognizing Signs of Abuse: A Drama in Three Acts
What is it about being a parent that makes you feel like one of those circus performers on a unicycle, teetering on a high wire while holding one of those long balancing sticks? On a daily basis, we parents have to strike just the right balance between work and play, discipline and permissiveness, or—in the case of the subject at hand—paranoia and confidence.
We’ve already agreed that none of us wants to believe that our child has been—or could ever be—the victim of sexual abuse. And certainly, it’s exhausting to worry over every tiny thing—every possible sign that something could be very, very wrong. But raise your hand if you want to be the parent who ignored all the warning signs, all your child’s cries for help. Yeah, me neither.
So what’s the sweet spot on this high wire—the compromise that will have us neither clinging in terror to the wire nor plummeting to the net below? It’s threefold: information, observation, and communication.
Act 1: Get the facts
The first fact I arm myself with in the battle against child sexual abuse is this: My husband and I know our child best. Which means we know what is and isn’t normal.
So when I look at this list of the signs of sexual abuse, I compare each item to what’s normal for my daughter. For example, she tends not to have nightmares, and she’s very physically affectionate with her dad and me (she’s a hugger!). So if she suddenly starts having scary dreams or not wanting to be touched, I’ll know something’s up. It may be abuse, it may be something else; but at least I’ll have some sort of warning.
It seems obvious, but taking a sort of mental inventory of my kiddo’s behavior and habits on a regular basis helps me feel confident that I’ll catch on to changes that much more quickly.
Act 2: Use your eyeballs
I could be the world’s foremost expert on the signs of sexual abuse, but if I don’t use my powers of observation, all that knowledge will do me no good whatsoever.
It makes me think about the ubiquitous scene of a spouse coming home with a new haircut/item of clothing/fill in the blank and the other spouse not noticing for days or weeks. (Confession time: My husband is usually cast in the former role, poor guy, while I’m in the latter—love the new glasses, honey!) In other words, it’s easy to so get caught up in everyday life—work, school, home maintenance, extracurricular activities, pets, vacations, in-laws, whatever—that we take the people around us for granted and stop being aware of those little changes.
So I try to remind myself on a frequent basis to really take a good look at my daughter; to really be aware of her baseline. That way, I hope, I’ll be aware of when something changes. And if noticing a change means getting her help right away for a traumatic experience, well, so much the better.
Act 3: For Pete’s sake, listen
I’ll admit it: I’m a mono-tasker. I can muster up hours of concentration to focus on one thing. It’s what makes me a very good editor and writer, and a spectacularly bad waitress. (No, really. Just terrible. Who had the ranch dressing…?)
Unfortunately, it also means that when I’m focusing on something else, I don’t always hear my daughter. If, for example, I’m reading a particularly fascinating magazine article and she starts in about some drama on the playground at school today, it often takes me several moments to shift my mind away from the words I’m reading and toward the words she’s saying.
And as I work on really listening to her, it’s a reminder to me that I’m setting a precedent. Sure, today it’s playground drama or the particularly excellent sparkly rock she found at the park or why Twilight Sparkle is awesome but she’d really like to be Rarity’s BFF. But tomorrow it could be how one friend’s parents have a gun, or why she no longer likes to go to another friend’s house to play. So I hope that if she knows I’ll always listen to the little stuff, she’ll know she can tell me the big stuff when the time comes.
The finale: Getting help when you need it
My dearest hope is that you’re not reading this in the middle of a family crisis. But if you are, know—and reassure your child—that there is help out there. If your child starts displaying any of the possible physical or behavioral signs of sexual abuse, talk to your doctor or the counselor at your child’s school right away. This collection of short videos and articles can give you more information about preventing and dealing with abuse.
And for true emergencies, dial 911, and consult this list of child protection resources for families, which includes hotlines and online help centers.
In the end, remember that you’re not a one-parent circus act. We’re all on this high wire with you.