The statistics are shocking: In the United States, over five children are reported to die every day as a result of child abuse and neglect. Bad enough. But it is estimated that between 50 – 60 percent of child deaths due to abuse are not recorded honestly on their death certificates. Do the math. That means that the daily death rate is probably more around 10 per day.
Of the number of children who died because of abuse or neglect, 70.3 percent were younger than 3 years old and 44.4 percent were younger than 1 year old. Over 15 million children witness violence and abuse each year in what is supposed to be the safety of their own homes.
Older kids don’t fare much better. Approximately 1.8 million adolescents in the United States have been the victims of sexual assault. Thirty-three percent of sexual assaults occur when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 17. Further, teens between 16 to 19 years of age were three and a half times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
The consequences of such abuse follow these kids for much of their lives: In one study, about 80 percent of 21-year-olds who were abused as children met the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental illness. More than a third of adolescents who suffered abuse or neglect will have a substance use disorder before their 18th birthday. That’s three times as likely as those without a report of abuse or neglect.
Teens who experienced sexual abuse as children are 25 percent more likely to get pregnant in their teen years. People who experience child abuse and neglect are about nine times more likely to become involved in criminal activity. In the United States, 14 percent of all men in prison and 36 percent of women in prison were abused as kids. That’s almost twice as many as in the general population. Sadly, about 30 percent of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children.
If the measure of a society is how well it takes care of its most vulnerable people, the U.S. is doing a terrible job. We may not be able to solve the whole problem, but each of us can start with our own kids in our own homes. We parents can do quite a bit to put a stop to some of those shocking statistics:
Discipline without abuse.
Learn how to set firm but fair limits and how to impose logical consequences when your child crosses the line. If you don’t know how to do that, go online or to the library for good parenting advice or join a parent support group. Parents Anonymous, for example, is a parent-to-parent self-help program that has groups all over the country.
Never discipline a child when you are angry and out of control. As one of my best teachers used to point out: Parents don’t “lose” their temper. They throw it away. If you are too angry to think through what you are doing, walk out of the room or the house and collect yourself. Parenting well means helping a child learn from mistakes, not causing them to fear their parents.
Be alert for abuse of your children by others.
If your child tells you about something that happened that gives you a bad feeling, listen carefully, take it seriously, and look into it. If your child tells you about unwanted touching or sexual language directed their way by another adult (relative, teacher, clergy, coach – anyone), follow up. And don’t be too easily convinced that the adult is being straight with you.
If an adult starts singling out your child for extra time alone (practices, tutoring, coaching, etc.), phone calls or sleepovers, check into it. Make sure such alone time is legitimate and not a way that the adult is “grooming” your child to be physically intimate.
Know the signs of abuse.
Young kids often will act out what has happened. In addition, showing more sexual knowledge than is usual at their age, masturbation at a young age, and sexually acting out with other children may be their way of trying to tell you that someone has been inappropriate with them. Also watch for big changes in behavior. Nightmares, aggression and self-injury (especially in children who have never before done such things) can be clues. If you see such behaviors, gently ask what’s wrong, in a way that lets the child know that she or he is not in trouble but that you are worried.
Older kids and teens may start to self-harm, have sleep disorders, withdraw or start showing risky behaviors. Eating disorders, aggression and self-harm also are clues. Complicating things is that the same behaviors may be rooted in bullying, self-esteem problems or an emerging mental illness. Further, teens are more guarded than small children and are less likely to share something if they feel ashamed or blamed. Still – ask! Ask gently, in a way that lets your teen know that you are not accusing them but rather than you are concerned.
Be sure that your children know how to protect themselves.
Provide all children with age-appropriate sex education. If you don’t take it on yourself to have “the talk” about sex and sexuality, your kids will get what is often faulty information from peers, the internet and media. Knowing about love, sex, and intimacy shouldn’t be left to chance.
With young children, make sure they understand that no one has a right to touch their bodies except their parents and medical personnel.
As soon as your child starts using the Internet, make sure they understand how predators troll for kids and can try to talk them into meeting with them. Make sure they understand that you aren’t trying to scare them but rather that you want them to have the information they need to make wise choices about who they get involved with in the virtual world.
With older children and teens, make sure they understand what it means to give consent. Make sure tweens and teens fully understand the dangers of sexting and putting sexual pictures and information on the web. It can and does lead to trouble both in the present and future!
When in doubt, get help.
If unsure about how to respond to your concern that your child may be being abused, look for help.
The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (800-422-4453) is staffed 24/7 with professional crisis counselors who can provide you with information and referrals to emergency, social service and support resources. All calls are free, anonymous and confidential. The counselors can give you some emotional support, can answer questions about the reporting process and provide you with additional information. And, no, they can’t come and take your children away. They will help you know what to expect if you make a report and will help you through the reporting process if that is what you decide to do.
Locally, there are therapists who specialize in childhood sexual abuse (both for children and youth and for adult survivors) in almost every community. If you need suggestions for who to call, talk with your doctor.
Call your local child protective services if you think a child is being abused but you are unsure whether to report. Know the law in your state. In many states, it is possible to call anonymously to ask if you should report. The worker will advise you on what to do next.