Parents send their children off to school to improve their lives and grow their minds. Most teachers respect the trust that parents place in them and do their best to shape the children in their care into more intelligent, mature and thoughtful humans. Unfortunately, there are some people, including teachers, custodians and other professionals, who seek out positions at schools to have access to children and teens. These predators may use their proximity or authority to sexually abuse the children in their care.

For parents, there is little you can do to control what happens in school. You simply can’t attend and follow your child all day, ensuring that no one hurts him or her. What you can do, however, is inform yourself about the common signs of abuse and talk to your child regularly about bodily autonomy. You can also commit to taking action if something does happen to your child.

Education can help protect your child

The offense is a good defense, as the saying goes. One of the best ways to protect your children and teenagers is to make sure they understand their right to their own bodies. Teaching them that no one is allowed touch them in any way that makes them uncomfortable is key. Let them know they can refuse hugs and other signs of affection when they don’t want them.

The older your child becomes, the more direct you can be in addressing these concerns. By the time your kids reach high school, you should consider a frank conversation about sexual abuse and assault. Doing so can help your children identify what is happening and stand up for themselves and others when faced with an abusive adult.

Know the signs of sexual abuse in the young

Children who experience sexual abuse may have nightmares, periods of seeming distracted or distance, changes in eating habits and appetite, issues swallowing, sudden mood swings and social withdrawal. They may make leading statements about potential abuse, talk about a new friend or create art or stories with sexual themes.

Children experiencing sexual abuse may feel like their bodies are dirty or bad. They may claim to have a secret they can no longer share or develop an aversion to people or places they once enjoyed. Other more subtle signs include acquiring new toys, cellphones or even money that they can’t provide an explanation for.Teenagers often have similar symptoms of sexual abuse. They may also engage in more self-destructive behaviors, such as cutting or burning themselves intentionally, no longer caring for their bodies properly, abusing drugs or alcohol, having promiscuous sex, running away from home or even compulsive eating or food restrictions. Some may also experience severe anxiety and depression, including attempting suicide.

If you believe your child is experiencing abuse, you should talk to them as soon as possible. Asking for guidance from a medical professional or therapist may also help.