Q: How can we tell if a baby sitter has acted inappropriately with our kids? We're concerned that our baby sitter may have abused our child.
Jim: I feel for you in this difficult and uncertain situation. According to our counselors at Focus on the Family, how you should approach it and what you should be looking for depends on the age of your child. But generally speaking, you should keep an eye out for noticeable shifts in normal behavior.
Youngsters in elementary grades who have been subjected to some kind of abuse may exhibit signs of regression -- for example, thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, baby-talk or academic setbacks. In some cases they can become aggressive, while in others they disconnect and lose themselves in a daydreamlike world of their own.
A child who's been sexually abused may begin to act out sexually with siblings or other children in the neighborhood, or become obsessed with sexual self-stimulation. In other instances, he or she may turn abnormally secretive or quiet. If your child seems to be afraid of the baby sitter, this is a good indication that something isn't right. On the other hand, if he or she is strangely eager or anxious to have the baby sitter return, it would probably be a good idea to find out why. Blood in your child's underpants might also be a sign that sexual abuse has occurred.
With smaller children, watch for signs of injury or irritation of the genital area, and have your child examined by their doctor if you discover any inexplicable irregularities. Also observe for nighttime restlessness, nightmares and disruptions in established sleep patterns. Monitor your child's daily activities and ask yourself whether his or her mental, emotional or physical equilibrium seems to be thrown off in any way.
Try to remember how your young child reacted the last time the baby sitter came to your house. Do you recall he or she acting agitated or upset while in the baby sitter's arms or under the baby sitter's care? If so, the situation may require further investigation. (By the way, we strongly suggest that Moms and Dads avoid using baby sitters other than a trusted family member until a child is sufficiently verbal to tell them what goes on during their absence.)
Older kids who might be reluctant to talk about a traumatic experience can sometimes be encouraged to open up if you take an indirect approach. The key is to keep the conversation as relaxed, informal and low-key as possible. Wait until your child is involved in some other activity, or helping you with simple chores like raking the leaves or washing the car. As the situation permits, turn the discussion gently and unobtrusively in the direction of the baby sitter. Ask open-ended questions like, "What do you think of ...?" Avoid "leading" or manipulative queries designed to elicit a particular response (for example, "Has ... ever done anything to make you feel uncomfortable?") Let the information emerge naturally.
If you need help, don't hesitate to engage the services of a trained child play therapist. Our staff of licensed counselors is also available to speak with you and provide you with a local referral. You can reach one of them for a free consultation Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. MST at 855-771-HELP (4357). Your police department or sheriff's office can also be a helpful resource, as can the Department of Child Protective Services.
If at any point you become convinced that abuse has occurred, contact the Social Services Department and/or your local sheriff's office immediately. You owe it to your child -- and to any other children in the area who may have had contact with this baby sitter -- to take appropriate action without delay.
Jim Daly is a husband and father, an author, and president of Focus on the Family and host of the Focus on the Family radio program. Catch up with him at www.jimdalyblog.com or at www.facebook.com/DalyFocus.
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