Posted on : Monday June 27, 2011

Dear Counselor,
I teach a Sunday School class of children in the early elementary school age group. I have noticed one child who is more withdrawn than the other children and often complains of stomach aches. Most peculiarly, she also will make comments while playing that have sexual overtones to them. My gut is telling me that something is not right with this child although she comes from a good family who are leaders in the church. I am wondering what I should do?

Dear Wondering,
Thank you for your question and for having the courage to follow what you “gut” is telling you. What you are reporting raises the suspicion of possible child sexual abuse. Since children usually do not communicate directly about being abused (and are often threatened so that they will keep things secret), we are often left to pick up on the indirect communication.

Behavioral indicators of sexual abuse in the pre-school child would include: Advanced sexual knowledge observed in play with toys or peers or in pictures; excessive sleeping or inability to sleep; physical complaints like headaches or stomach aches; nightmares; over or under eating; difficulty separating from parents; difficulty making friends; moodiness; bedwetting; anxiety, jumpiness, easily startled; aggressive or withdrawn behavior; resumption of immature behaviors such as thumb sucking, baby talk and clinging to objects or parents.

Behavioral indicators for the school-aged child or teenager would include: problems at school; increasing social isolation; sleep disruptions; changes in eating patterns; specific fears of people, places or things; moodiness, irritability, depression or anxiety; aggressive or withdrawn behaviors; running away and suicidal ideas; immature or pseudo-adult behaviors; lying and stealing; physical complaints; destructive behavior; advanced sexual knowledge and behavior with others.

Physical signs in children and teenagers would include: stains, discharge or blood on child’s underwear; swelling, redness soreness, bruises, or itching of the genital areas, buttocks or breasts; venereal disease; vaginal or penile infections; pregnancy; burning on urination or frequent urination; retention of bowels.

The law for helping professionals is that we are to report even the suspicion of child abuse. This can be difficult when it seems unlikely that this could happen to a child in a “good” family. You may first want to go to your pastor to report your suspicions. Your church should have some sort of policy about how to handle these situations. Child protective services or the State’s attorney’s office should be contacted so that they can do an investigation. Remember that the reporting is trying to save a child from possible devastating abuse. In these circumstances, it is often said that there is a perpetrator, a victim and a non-protective bystander. The non-protective bystander is often someone who at some level knows of the abuse, but says nothing. For the victim, the pain of someone saying nothing is often as great as the pain caused by the abuse itself.

Tom Rodgerson

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