The Center of Disease Control (CDC) estimates that at least 1 in 7 children were abused in 2019. That same year Utah reported 10,828 confirmed child victims and that 42,428 child abuse and neglect reports were received by the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). When left untreated, child abuse can significantly impact victims. Victims of child abuse are more likely to have difficulties learning and concentrating, behavioral problems, and often struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety. Understanding child abuse can help caregivers know how to protect their children from this all-too-common tragedy.
Why are children at such high risk for abuse?
Children are at risk for sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, and neglect. Perpetrators use abusive acts to gain and maintain power in relationships. Children are especially vulnerable to abuse because of the natural difference in power between adults and children.
Who commits abuse?
Abuse is rarely committed by strangers. Statistics indicate that most perpetrators are people the child knows well and trusts. Abusers often use their relationship with the child as leverage so the child will allow the abuse to continue. It is also important to note that older, bigger, or simply more powerful children can abuse less powerful children. These children do not typically share the same intent to harm as adults who abuse but the impact on the abused child can be just as detrimental.
If my child were being abused wouldn’t they tell me?
Children who have been abused frequently struggle with feelings of guilt and shame. They may believe that what has happened is their fault and that they would get in trouble for telling. They may have been threatened by their abuser. Some may not understand what is happening to them or do not have the words to describe the abuse.
How can I protect my child?
Foster open communication with your child. Talk about not only the difficult subjects, but also the joyful ones. Cultivating a close, open relationship with your child can help them feel comfortable opening up if something does happen and will help you get a better sense if something is off.
Teach children the difference between secrets and surprises: “It’s okay to have surprises, but it’s not okay to have secrets.”
Give your child the words they need to talk about their bodies. Teach them the anatomically correct names for their body parts. In developmentally appropriate ways, talk to your children about what to do if someone treats them inappropriately. When talking about touches consider using terms like “stop touch” and “go touch” rather than “good touch” and “bad touch” as those terms might be confusing especially in the case of sexual abuse.
Set firm boundaries. Many caregivers place their children in situations with which the caregivers feel uncomfortable because they do not want to be unkind or hurt someone’s feelings. Trust your gut. You can both be kind and set firm boundaries.
If you believe your child has been abused, seek help immediately. Report all child abuse to the Department of Child and Family Services by calling their 24/7 reporting hotline at 1-855-323-3237. There is a lot of hope for healing available to victims of abuse through trauma-informed treatments.
Erin Osborn, CSW
Family Therapist at The Children's Center Utah