Child sexual abuse is a significant problem in our society. Many studies have estimated that an alarming 12 to 25% of girls and 8 to 10% of boys experience some form of sexual abuse prior to the age of 18 years. Other studies have suggested that these figures may even be an underestimate and that as many as 30 to 40% of women and 13% of men have been abused. Children may be abused by family members or non-family members, however, only 14% of children are abused by someone they do not know. Most of the time, they are abused by males, and approximately 20% of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are adolescents.
The sequelae of child sexual abuse has been documented in numerous studies and observed in treatment by mental health practitioners. Although not always present, a wide range of psychological, emotional, physical, and social effects have been attributed to child sexual abuse, including anxiety, depression, obsession, compulsion, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms such as flashbacks, emotional numbing, pseudo-maturity symptoms, and other more general dysfunctions such as sexual dysfunction, social dysfunction, dysfunction of relationships, poor education and employment records, eating disorders, self-mutilation, and a range of physical symptoms common to some other forms of PTSD, such as sensual numbness, and loss of appetite (see Smith et al., 1995).
More recent studies have indicated that sexual abuse in children can lead to the overexcitation of an undeveloped limbic system. This could explain the problems sexual abuse victims have with regulation of mood and other limbic functions, especially as exhibited in borderline personality disorder. Other studies have also indicated that sexual abuse can lead to temporal lobe epilepsy, damage to the cerebellar vermis, along with reduced size of the corpus callosum. Changes in the hippocampus - the part of the brain that deals with short-term memory and possibly the encoding and retrieval of long-term memory - could, researchers suggest, be impacted by hormones flooding the brain during and after a stressful episode such as child sexual abuse.
There is little doubt, therefore, that child sexual abuse can be very harmful to children. Parents are, therefore, tasked with the responsibility of protecting their children from child sexual predators. But how is the parent to recognize the potential child sexual predator?
Child sexual predators often engage a technique called 'grooming' as part of their process of victimization. 'Grooming' refers to actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending a child in order to lower the child's sexual inhibitions or establish an intimate friendship in preparation for the eventual introduction of sexual activities with the child. The act of grooming a child sexually may include activities that are both legal and illegal. At the outset, the groomer aims to lower the child’s inhibitions about non-sexual inappropriate behaviors by encouraging, permitting or covering up the breaking of rules. For example, the groomer may permit the child to secretly violate a rule set by a parent. In so doing, the groomer develops a “secret alliance” with the child, which then can be later exploited. Anna C. Salter, Ph.D., a well-respected expert psychologist in the study of sexual predators suggests, "The establishment (and eventual betrayal) of affection and trust occupies a central role in the child molester's interactions with children.... The grooming process often seems similar from offender to offender, largely because it takes little to discover that emotional seduction is the most effective way to manipulate children."
Grooming begins when the predator chooses a target area. The predator may visit places where children are likely to go: schools, shopping malls, playgrounds, and parks. They may work or volunteer at businesses or organizations that cater to children. Other predators strike up relationships with adults who have children in the home. For them, single parent families may make particularly good targets.
Victim selection and recruitment are next. Any child may be victimized, however, not surprisingly, predators often target children with obvious vulnerabilities. A child who feels unloved and unpopular will soak up adult attention like a sponge and predators often hone in on these children. Children with family problems, who spend time alone and unsupervised, who lack confidence and self-esteem, and who are isolated from their peers are all likely targets.
Predators may offer to play games, give rides, or buy treats and gifts as tokens of friendship. They may sometimes offer drugs or alcohol to older children or teenagers. And they also always offer a sympathetic, understanding ear.
The internet provides a large pool of potential victims for child pornographers and pedophiles. These "cyber-stalkers" may either lurk around or pretend to be children while learning details and earning the trust of their target victims. Their goals may include online sexual activity (in chat rooms) or meeting the child in person.
The first physical contact between predator and victim is often nonsexual touching designed to identify limits: an "accidental" touch, an arm around the shoulder, a brushing of hair. Nonsexual touching desensitizes the child. It breaks down inhibitions and leads to more overt sexual touching - the predator's ultimate goal.
Child grooming is neither benign nor temporary in its impact. Its intent is to shape and mold the underlying structure of the child, in order to convert them into “willing victims” of the predator by breaking down and ultimately violating their boundaries.
According to a NIMH study (1988), the typical child sexual predator molests an average of 117 children, most of whom do not report the offense.
So how can a parent protect their children from such predators? Here are some important things for parents to pay attention to:
1. Ensure that safety precautions are in place to protect your child at home, school, church, clubs or other activities, especially those involving special trips and overnight outings. Have the adults in these organizations undergone background checks? Are adults ever alone with a child? If yes, when and why? How can these activities be restructured to avoid isolation?
2. Stay involved in your child’s activities. Meet your child’s teachers, coaches, and activity leaders. Keep track of where, and with whom, your child is if she or he is not with you.
3. Be alert for adults or adolescents, particularly males, who display an unusual interest in children.
4. Do not allow anyone to have unsupervised access to children if he or she seems more interested in spending time with children than with his or her own peers, seems focused on children of a particular age or gender (especially if the person does not have children of that age), singles out a child for special attention, gifts, or favors, wants to take a child on special outings without others present, seems eager to spend alone-time with a child, invites children into his or her home unsupervised, allows or encourages children to do “grown up” things or things they are not allowed to do at home.
5. Recognize that most child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone who is known to the child. Sexual abuse is more likely in families where (a) other abuse is tolerated (b) the family hides embarrassing secrets (c) the family is rigid and tightly controlled (d) there is a demand for blind, absolute loyalty (e) there are poor role definitions (f) there is disrespect for each others' privacy, rights, individuality (g) the parents are poorly differentiated in their families of origin, never became fully mature adults or able to function as competent parents (h) there is a conflictual marriage or troubled divorce (i) the children are expected to act like adults, play adult roles before they are ready (j) there has been lots of moving, change, traumatic stress (k) there is a low level of appropriate touch, where parents never hug, caress or cuddle their children, as normal families do and (l) there is sometimes a compensating veneer of religiosity in the family.
Due to fear, guilt or shame, children may often be reluctant to disclose sexual abuse, or may even retract earlier disclosures of sexual abuse. Parents must be alert to the fact that this disclosure pattern may exist and should not wait for a child's disclosure to confirm suspected sexual abuse, or be reassured solely by a child's denial of sexual abuse. By recognizing the behavior of child sexual predators, and by understanding the factors that leave children vulnerable to sexual abuse, parents can gain greater control in protecting their children from child sexual abuse.