It is hard to imagine that an estimated six million children are abused and neglected in the United States each year. These shocking statistics include different forms of maltreatment, ranging from physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse to physical neglect and medical neglect.

“Child abuse occurs in all segments of our society and crosses all socioeconomic and cultural lines,” says Jamie Kondis, MD, a Washington University child abuse pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. While most parents will never actually be abusers, and most children will never be abused, it is still important to be aware of the signs. Parents also need to know how to talk to a child so they feel comfortable reporting abuse. 

Dr. Kondis answers some questions from parents about child abuse:

What is the most common form of child abuse?

Parental neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment. Neglect occurs when a child receives little or no supervision and when his or her basic needs for clothing, nutrition, medical care, education, shelter and nurturance are not met. Neglect may not always pose an immediate threat, but it can have long-lasting physical, social, development and emotional consequences.

What are the warning signs that a child may have been abused?

Children who have been physically or sexually abused often exhibit similar behaviors that can vary depending on the age of the child. These include frequent nightmares, stomachaches and/or headaches, a return to bedwetting, problems at school, and weight gain or weight loss. In the case of physical abuse there could be broken bones, bruises or other injures. Children who have been sexually abused may display unexpected or inappropriate sexual behavior.

What can I do to help protect my child from being sexually abused?

While you don’t want to alarm your child, you need to alert your son or daughter that sexual abuse exists while reassuring them that it will probably never happen to them. The challenge lies in the fact that the perpetrator is typically a trusted adult or family member. Here are some tips:

  • In early childhood, parents should teach their children the correct names of the genitals. This lets a child know that these parts of the body are private, but not so private that they are given a different name.
  • Parents should talk to their children about the differences between wanted and unwanted touching.
  • Give your child permission to forcefully say “NO” or “STOP.” Also let them know it’s OK to run away from a person who threatens them sexually or touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable—even if the person is a trusted adult or family member.
  • Reassure your child that she will not get in trouble if she reports an incident no matter who the perpetrator is and what kind of “warning” the perpetrator has given her.

What should I do if my child tells me she has been sexually abused?

The most important thing you can do is to say “Thank you for telling me. I believe you.” Do not ask a lot of questions. The best first step is to call your child’s pediatrician. They are familiar with all of the resources and the proper reporting requirements and will know how to help you and your child physically and emotionally.


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