Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse in Children

Are you aware of some of the most common warning signs of sexual abuse in children? These behaviors don’t mean that a child has been sexually abused, but adults who observe several of these warning signs in a child should take note, and take action. A local Children’s Advocacy Center is a great place to get help. Suggestions for what to do if you see warning signs are also available here.

Warning signs in young children:

  • Behaving like a younger child (regression to bedwetting or thumb sucking)
  • Acquires new words for private body parts
  • Fear of being away from caregivers
  • Sudden interest in sexual organs of self & others
  • Acts out or suggests sexual games with other children
  • Wetting or soiling accidents (beyond toilet training)
  • Mimics adult-like or sexual behaviors with stuffed animals or dolls
  • Avoiding clothing changes or bathing

Warning signs in school-aged children and adolescents:

  • Suddenly has toys, money, or gifts without explanation
  • Seems distracted or distant
  • Sudden change in eating habits
  • Nightmares or sleep problems
  • Sudden fear of certain familiar places or people
  • Talks about having secrets or being unable to talk about something
  • Mentions a new or older friend but unwilling to share details or name them
  • Writes, draws, plays or dreams about sexual or frightening images

Signs primarily seen in teens:

  • Self mutilation, cutting, and other self-injurious behaviors
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Eating disorder
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Rebellion or withdrawal; running away from home
  • Change in attitude towards school or academic performance

Physical warning signs of sexual abuse are rare and may include bleeding, bruising or discharge in genital, anus or mouth, STPs, painful urination or bowel movements, and trouble walking or sitting.

Remember that traumatic events such as a divorce, death in the family, or bullying can elicit similar behaviors, but listen to your instincts. If something seems off, and can’t put your finger on why, talk to the child about it.

The warning signs above are compiled from a number of resources including:

stopitnow.org

Child Abuse Alert: A Desk Reference

rainn.org

d2l.org

The Plot Twist

I’m a bit of a movie snob, but nothing captures my praise and attention like a well-played twist in the plot. Many of my favorite movies; Sixth Sense, The Village, The Prestige, Planet of the Apes, and The Sting hooked me with one “WHAT IN THE WORLD?!?! I did NOT see that coming!” moment. Even a few recent-ish family films like Frozen and Maleficent featured surprising twists that left me and my kids gasping in delight. The best plot twists make so much sense once they are revealed. You’re left wondering “WHY couldn’t I see it all along?!?” Today I had an adoptive parenting “why didn’t I see it all along” moment.  

*SPOILER ALERT* Reading further may reveal plot details about adoption that you cannot un-know.

As adoptive parents we do a lot of dreaming about our child before they come home.  We wonder what our child will look like, if we will share common interests and if our personalities will “click”. Most compassionate parents-to-be also put themselves in the shoes of their adoptive child and think about their dreams as well. You may worry that you’re not the hip, playful, or good-looking parents your child has been dreaming of.  What if they walk into your house and think it smells funny? What if they hate your cooking? If you’re like me you may, for one fleeting moment, consider buying a jet ski or a miniature horse to help seal the deal that you’re the coolest family on the block.  I usually end up reassuring myself that although we may not be “dream family material”, we’re here, we’re loving, we’re safe, and we’re all in this together. Whew! What a relief! Surely this kid will love us. But wait… Here comes the twist…

What if the family your child dreams about being with is the family they lost?

Why. Didn’t. I. See. It.

Like any great twist, you may find yourself reeling. Even though it makes so much sense, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Can I urge you to not let this thought put you on the defensive? Our knee-jerk reaction may be to start comparisons between the life we can offer a child and what might-have-been in other scenarios, but these thoughts are divisive, unproductive and insensitive. Many adoptees are deeply loyal to the parents who brought them into this world. It’s loyalty so strong that, in many cases, even abuse, disappointment, distance, and time cannot diminish it. It may be loyalty to someone they’ve never met or can’t remember… but this doesn’t negate your child’s longing. It doesn’t discount their loss.  

Several years ago on Christmas morning one of our foster sons was acting moody and ungrateful. He made it clear that Christmas at his “old house” was way better than anything we had to offer. I let it get under my skin and my husband found me grumbling and growling to myself in the kitchen while putting cookies in the oven. He stood there and allowed me to vent while the kids tore into new puzzles and toys in the other room. My lengthy, hissing monologue ended with me triumphantly declaring “And why WOULDN’T he love it here?!?! Why WOULDN’T he be having a great time today?!?” My sweet husband took my face in his hands and said “Because he didn’t ask for it.”

So, after we’re done quietly weeping, WHERE do we go from here?  

Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”  

Now I know better.

I can look back over my parenting and see many times that I said and did ignorant things that hurt my child. My child’s loss and grief exist, whether I acknowledge them or not.  But now I have the opportunity to walk alongside my child in a place that my ignorance once sent them alone. I have a truth that can silence those old feelings of rejection or resentment I felt regarding my child’s connection to his birth family. Maybe my painful self-realization can save some of you prospective, waiting, or new adoptive parents from making the same mistakes I’ve made. I hope this post is shared with and read by many of the people who surround and support foster and adoptive parents as well. The more people who understand where our children are coming from the better. I hope it makes us all pause when faced with children’s tears, fond memories, harsh words, or difficult behaviors and remember the losses they’re grieving.

I’m doing better now and, although I may not be “dream family material”, I’m here, I’m listening, and we’re all in this together.

All We Taught Him

We had 8 kids. Three were added to the family the old-fashioned way where a man loves a woman, a bee loves a bird or something to that effect. And, five were added the other old-fashioned way where a child wants a family, a family wants a child, a judge slings a gavel and an adoption or in our case five adoptions are finalized.

But we like kids. So, we asked, “You think we need one more? You think we need one more. Let’s have one more.” And once again, we went the old fashioned route. And, we added what we currently consider our final biological child to the family… Chapel Henry Kendrick.

It’s been great. He’s real chunky. He still has his baby blue eyes. He eats some solids, drools a lot, and army crawls all over the place. He says, “Dada” and “Mama”, and we taught him some sign language so he could tell us when he wants more rather than screaming at us. The “more” sign has just become him clapping, and he uses it for everything which probably means we failed in actually teaching him sign language. Nonetheless, it’s super cute and works for us.

He’s about ten months old now. Whereas our other children all started sleeping through the night no later than four months after joining the family, Chapel, well… he still doesn’t sleep through the night. It’s been a fairly consistent schmorgesborg of co-sleeping, night nursing, frantic pacing while patting him back to sleep, and the ever-popular crib-to-bed-to-crib rotation. We have never devolved into circling the neighborhood with him in the backseat of one of our cars, but if it would give my wife a full night’s sleep… I’d circle all night long.

We decided last night to stand our ground. We’ve nurtured dozens of children and never had this problem for this long of a time before. I don’t recall having to “stand my ground” in the past. Usually, they just started sleeping through the night to our pleasant surprise. Regardless, we chose to let him cry it out no matter how long he wales from less than 10 ft. from the end of our bed in his crib.

And so it began. Some time in the early hours of the night he fussed for a second and then launched into a blitzkrieg assault on our eardrums. At first, we tried to ignore him. Then I gave a stern, “Chapel, lay down and go to sleep.” Then my wife got up, walked to his crib, told him, “No.”, and laid him back down. After what felt like an hour of auditory abuse, I walked over to the crib, gently but firmly laid him back down, proceeded to pat and massage him back to sleep, and reminded him he was not getting out of bed. My wife and I laid back down, and in her steadfast support, she said, “Any other ideas?” My reply, “Got any earplugs?” She did. We put them in, and the cacophony subsided to a dull roar, but we were still aware of his presence.

After a few minutes using our earplug tactic, all of our defenses were torn down by Chapel’s most lethal maneuver yet. In the midst of his desperation for someone to come sooth his anxiety, he resorted to the only form of communication we had taught him. He started clapping. We could not muffle the sound of his marshmallowy, little hands coming together, and it broke us. I pulled my earplugs out, walked over to his crib, and lifted him into my arms. I held him for a minute as his cries turned into a rhythmic whimper, and he caught his breath. We sat down in the rocking chair used so many nights in the past, and I massaged his back, patted his bottom and told him he was okay. He slowly turned his whimper into a sniffle, his sniffle into heavy breathing and his heavy breathing into a sleepy rest.

Children communicate the way we teach them. In our care of abused and neglected children in foster care this has been just as true as in our care of biological children. Abused and neglected children often come with a litany of communication skills both verbal and non-verbal. Some cuss. Some hit. Some don’t cuss or hit, but they scream. We had another little girl who was 4 but functioned on an 18 month old level. She knew two words, “teevees” and “mommy”. Anytime she took a bath and we had to get her hair wet, she lost it, and IT. WAS. PIERCING. She was with us for 14 months, and by the time she was reunified with her mom, she was a healthy, little girl who could take a bath, talk to her peers and express herself to adults.

We had a nine month old placed with us for a time who had grown up in a Spanish-speaking only home. So he cried anytime he wasn’t asleep for about two weeks, and then one night my wife said, “Que paso, papi?” He perked up immediately. From then on, we knew we had to change the way we communicated with him so he could communicate with us. Still some don’t make any sounds at all. When a child has sat in a crib or been locked in a room and learned no one is coming, they lose their voice. They just freeze and wait until they’re not being addressed or until whatever is going to happen happens.

If a child has only been taught to hit, cuss, scream, be silent, clap or speak a completely different language, they will use those means to talk to us. If we, as parents, want them to use their voice to express their fears, anger or needs, we must be patient and observant enough to learn about where they lost their voice so we can help them find it and give it back to them. Sometimes the patience and observation required for a child to calm down so you can help or the gentleness needed to comfort them through things is the equivalent of ten months of sleep deprivation.

After Chapel snuggled his chubby cheeks into my neck, I spent five more minutes rubbing his back and listening to him breath. I placed him back in his crib and covered him with his blanket. I walked back to bed and laid down. Less than 30 seconds later… he was rooting around in his crib again just before the onslaught resumed. I could hear my wife subduing her laughter next to me.

I don’t doubt there will be more embattled, sleepless nights in my future. In the same way my children from foster care didn’t stop cussing, hitting, screaming or freezing just because I was patient with them one time, Chapel will continually need comfort and reassurance that he is not alone and not forgotten. Like every child, he needs help finding his voice and will require direction throughout life.

Hear your kids and know they often only communicate in the ways they have been taught. If we don’t teach them any other way, we can only expect what has been modeled. Be patient. Observe.