Children & Abuse
Domestic violence and sexual assault are usually seen as adult issues, but they can have devastating effects on children. It is a mistake to assume that just because children are too young to understand adult violence or too young to know what sex is, they are not affected by abuse. Children who are exposed to domestic violence or who are sexually abused have the best hope of recovery if there is an adult nearby who will listen, believe, and care enough to act. If you or someone you love needs help, please do not hesitate to call us at 724-836-1122 or 1-888-832-2272.
Children and Domestic Violence
Accidental injury is always a risk for any child who is present during a violent incident, but all too often children are intended victims as well. The batterer may want to punish a partner by hurting the children, or may hurt the children simply because they are there.
Children growing up in a violent home often come to believe that violence in a family is normal; it's how problems are solved. Life in a violent family is chaotic. Rules and boundaries change at the whim of the abuser. Children may try to take on adult roles, hoping to establish some stability. If the violence continues, the children may begin to develop the belief that men are supposed to push women around (and that women are supposed to be pushed around).
We all know that children absorb values and learn behavior by watching those around them, but that isn't the whole story. Research has shown that thought processes are significantly affected by the stress and fear that come with being exposed to family violence. Children exposed to abuse are often unable to develop the coping skills needed to deal with change, frustration, anger, or even minor irritations. They may not be able to exercise self-control or recognize the consequences of their actions.
As they mature, children from abusive households are at risk for becoming violent themselves. They are also more likely than the general population to abuse alcohol and other drugs, and to engage in other destructive (and self-destructive) behavior.
It is generally accepted that keeping the family together is "best for the children," but the serious effects of witnessing family violence suggest that children may be better off in a single-parent, nonviolent family.
Children who live with a violent parent are always at risk of being physically injured, but the emotional effects of domestic violence on children are not so obvious and may not show up right away. It is now believed that children who only witness family violence will suffer the same emotional consequences as those who, themselves, are abused.
Child Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse can take many forms. It can include touching children inappropriately, exposing them to pornography, encouraging them to act or speak sexually (in-person or on the internet), engaging in sexual acts with them or in their presence, and filming, videotaping or photographing children engaged in, or pretending to engage in, sexual activity.
A child sexual abuser may spend months or even years "grooming" a victim with nonsexual hugging and touching - behavior that appears to be perfectly normal and acceptable. After gaining the child's trust, the perpetrator gradually shifts to more sexual (abusive) behavior.
Child sexual abuse can be highly traumatic, and, while not all children suffer long term effects, serious repercussions are not unusual.
Who are the abusers?
Child sexual abuse by strangers does happen, but the vast majority of perpetrators are people the child knows and trusts - family members, friends, or babysitters.
The majority of child sexual abuse perpetrators are men, but some are women. Occasionally, couples will jointly abuse children, or one will abuse while the other keeps silent - often as a result of threats.
Many child sexual abusers were sexually abused when they were children.
How often does it happen?
It is generally believed that about one girl in four is sexually abused by the time she reaches 18. Boys are abused at the rate of about one in six.
Usually, the abuse begins gradually and then increases over time. It is rarely a one-time incident. Often it continues for years - until the abuser is found out or the child grows up and moves away.
Do children sometimes seek sexual attention?
What children seek is not sex, but normal affection and love. Sometimes they may appear "provocative" when they mimic adult behavior. Children copy many adult behaviors without understanding the implications.
Abusers may use the child's behavior to rationalize their own conduct, but regardless of what the child does, it is the adult who is responsible for his or her own actions. A child is never responsible for being abused.
Why don't children tell?
• As children come to understand what is happening, they may be ashamed of what they wrongly believe is
their participation in the abuse.
• They may have been threatened or bribed into silence. Threats may be directed at the child, at other family
members, or perhaps at the child's pet.
• They may be afraid no one will believe them. Sometimes they do try to tell, only to be hushed by family
members who warn that it's not "nice" to talk about those things. The child may even face punishment for
• They may not have the words to explain what is going on.
• They may feel guilty for consequences to the abuser.
Keep in mind that children are used to doing what they are told. They are used to having adults touch them. They are used to having adults do things they don't understand.
Do children sometimes make up stories about being sexually abused?
Very few children invent these stories. If children lie about sexual abuse, they are much more likely to minimize the nature or frequency of the abuse than make false accusations.
How can I reduce the risk to my children?
Urge your children to tell you about anyone who hurts or scares them or makes them feel uncomfortable, and give them permission to refuse to obey an older child or adult if they believe what is happening is wrong. Establish an atmosphere that lets your children know they can talk to you about anything.
Children who are able to care for their own needs in dressing, bathing, and using the toilet may be less vulnerable. Pay attention to persons who are a little too "helpful," and include information about sexual assault when teaching your children about safety.
How can I tell if my child is being sexually abused?
Unfortunately, there is not one signal that indicates sexual abuse is occurring. It is also true that many other factors in a child's life could result in behavior changes such as those listed below.
Behaviors that suggest a child might be experiencing some kind of distress include:
• an increase in physical complaints
• unexplained fear or dislike of certain people or places, depression, or withdrawal
• nightmares or other sleep disturbances
• regression to infantile behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting
• abnormal interest in sex or knowledge of sexual matters inappropriate for the child's age
• frequent genital or urinary tract infections or irritations, excessive masturbation
• self-injury such as burning or cutting
In older children and teens you may see additional behaviors such as:
• suicide attempts
• school or discipline problems
• eating disorders
• low self-esteem
• drug or alcohol abuse
• running away
If your child seems upset, depressed, fearful of a particular individual, or begins behaving uncharacteristically, a simple "Can you tell me what's bothering you?" may tell you what's wrong.
What should I do if a child tells me he or she has been sexually abused?
It is important to remain calm. Children may interpret anger at the perpetrator as anger against them. You may be tempted to confront the abuser, but taking this action may reinforce the child's fears that telling you has made you angry or is going to break up the family, just as the abuser threatened. Confronting the abuser can also be dangerous. If a confrontation is unavoidable, do it only when the child is not present.
Let your child tell you what happened in his or her own words. Reassure your child that the abuse was not his or her fault and that telling you was the right thing to do. Maintain the child's confidentiality, but make sure he or she understands that you may have to tell the police or the doctor. (Medical attention is recommended even if you see no signs of injury.)
Report the incident to the police, to your county child welfare agency or to Childline, the Pennsylvania state-wide child abuse reporting hotline: 1-800-932-0313. Reports may be made anonymously.
If you feel that counseling may be appropriate, consider calling Blackburn Center at 724-836-1122 or 1-888-832-2272. You can talk with a hotline counselor and, if you choose, arrange for in-person sessions for your child, for you, or for both.
PLEASE NOTE: Blackburn Center counselors are mandated by law to report child abuse, as are other professionals who come into contact with children in the course of their business.
For more resources on children and abuse, please click here.
At school or at home, many children may experience bullying. Bullying can encompass a wide variety of behaviors, from physical intimidation to teasing to online harassment. The crucial elements of bullying behavior is that it hurts another person physically or emotionally, the person being bullied has a hard time stopping the behaviors or defending herself, and there is an imbalance of power between the bully and the person being bullied. If you or someone that you love is being bullied, Blackburn Center may be able to help. Please do not hesitate to call us at 724-836-1122 or 1-888-832-2272.
Click here to learn more about bullying.
More about Types of Abuse: