Smart Parenting During and After Divorce: What to Do When Your Child Is Acting Out Sexually During or After a Visit (page 3)
Many parents' biggest nightmare is that their child might be sexually abused. In a high proportion of sexual molestations cases, the perpetrator is close to the family. What should you do if your child does something that appears very sexual, and you believe that the child might have been exposed to sexual activity at the co-parent's house?
Children can learn sexual behavior by being the recipient of it, by observing and imitating it, or by exploring their own bodies and experiencing the pleasurable sensations that occur while doing so. The last circumstance is normal, natural, and not harmful. The first two circumstances are harmful to children to varying degrees, depending on what they have been exposed to.
Educating Your Child
Every parent, from the time a child is about three years of age or so, can and should start to educate their child about sexual behavior by explaining the names of the private areas of the body and by explaining the difference between good touches—like hugs and back scratches given by people you know very well—and bad touches, which are any touches that make you feel uncomfortable or creepy, and particularly any touches in the private areas.
It is often helpful to give children age five and above very specific advice about how people can touch or kiss them. This includes teaching children to give and receive kisses on the cheek and to tell an adult when someone tries to kiss them on the mouth. Giving a child a kiss on the lips is acceptable in some cultures, but I would rather have a child offend some of my Old World family members and be certain the child knows the difference between an appropriate versus an inappropriate form of affection. Besides, it is not the most sanitary way of interacting with a child, and for this reason alone you should teach your child to avoid it.
Children can learn a lot of age-inappropriate sexual behavior by watching television. A rash of parents have come through my office whose children have seen people kissing with their tongues on television and who then imitate the behavior. Of course, this can become the catalyst for horrible fights and accusations between co-parents. It is always wise to monitor and restrict television for children. Children can watch television, but television should not watch children.
When to Get a Professional Opinion
If your child demonstrates any of the following behaviors, a safe course of action is to discuss it immediately with a pediatrician or child behavior expert.
- Tries to kiss on the mouth and spontaneously says that is the way so-and-so kisses
- Compulsively masturbates
- Tries to insert objects into body openings
- Is involved in sexual behavior (oral sex, simulated or actual intercourse) with playmates
- Makes sexually explicit comments without knowing their meaning
- Makes sexual advances to other adults (touches or rubs or tries to kiss their genitals)
The physical signs of sex abuse are difficult for the untrained eye to identify accurately. Children may be prone to rashes and irritations in the genital area that can be related to acidic urine, as well as certain soaps or laundry detergents. Before accusing anyone of sexual impropriety with your child, get a professional opinion.
If Sexual Abuse Is Confirmed
When indications appear to confirm your suspicions that your child might have been exposed to sexual activity, you must talk with the co-parent and share your concerns. You can do so without pointing an accusatory finger, but there is no guarantee that it will be taken as anything other than accusatory. Do not take this as a sign of guilt or culpability on the part of the person you are talking to. While it is frightening to think your child might be sexually abused, it is also frightening to be unjustly accused of sexually abusing your own child.
Both parents must put their heads together to discuss who the child has been interacting with lately and any other pertinent observations. Both parents should meet with professionals trained in this area and seek their advice.
All cases of suspected sexual abuse should be reported to whatever child protective service agency handles your jurisdiction. The telephone number for this agency is usually found at the beginning or end of the local telephone directory. You can also get this number from directory assistance by asking for the listing for the government agency in your area that handles cases of suspected child abuse. A child who reports abuse by a parent is somewhat at the mercy of the professionals who examine that child and the opinions they form as a result of examining the child. Be certain, therefore, that the people who examine your children have the requisite training and skill.
The quality of service received from any government employee who investigates child or sexual abuse varies from excellent to poor, depending on the training of the individual, experience in the field, and many other factors. You have the right to ask workers questions about their training. Take careful notes about everything an investigator does with respect to places, times, and contact with the child.
If you believe that a caseworker did not do an adequate job of investigating the abuse, find out who supervises that worker and ask whether you may submit a letter reflecting your concerns. If you believe you have been unjustly accused, you should seek a lawyer's advice. In most jurisdictions there is a protocol for challenging the investigative findings of a state agency that handles child abuse.
If you are very sure that your child has been sexually molested by the co-parent or someone at the co-parent's house, before you cancel the next visitation, speak to an attorney or go to court and ask about how you can file for an emergency action or conference with the court on your child's behalf.
This is a very difficult parenting area because children can be swayed to report sex abuse that did not happen, and they can be convinced or threatened not to report abuse that did happen. You can protect your children's interests by supervising them closely at all times. Teach your children to talk about their bodies, to not be ashamed of any body part, to be cautious of anyone who touches their bodies or makes them feel uncomfortable, and to always tell an adult when this happens.
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