9 hard lessons every parent can learn from to keep their children safe from sexual abuse.
Parents of children who have experienced sexual abuse reach out to us often wanting to share their experience so that other parents can learn and hopefully spare their family the same heartache and struggle.
These parents are overwhelmed with guilt – but in a world where abuse prevention education receives so little attention and funding – most parents are not even given the opportunity to be educated. There is a certain sense of shock and anger when these parents learn after the fact, how many children are being sexually abused, and what little is being done to prevent it.
We should have started talking about body safety early.
Many parents think it is unnecessary to learn or talk to their kids about sexual abuse at an early age or are intimidated by the idea, putting put it off so they won’t have to think about it. But the reality is many children are abused before they even enter kindergarten.
When is a good time to start talking about it? How about before you even give birth? Talk with your spouse or partner about the issues. Research daycare facilities and their training and procedures for abuse prevention. Talk with your family about the issues and see how much they know and what they think. It is not helpful when you are trying to promote body safety if you have extended family forcing hugs, using made up names for genitalia, or acting like it’s ‘impossible’ for abuse to happen in the family. Children are best protected when they are surrounded by adults that are educated, vigilant, and prepared to take action.
Using proper words is a big deal.
Genitalia are really the only parts of our body that people purposely avoid using the real words for. It’s confusing, and it can make private parts seem fun or funny – which means when someone else starts using a made up word for your child’s genitalia- they will probably think it’s fun, too. And if they ever need to communicate to you or to anyone else that someone touched their ‘cookie’ instead of their vulva, you or another caring adult may miss the disclosure.
Stranger danger is not the same as sexual abuse.
Unless we know someone that gives us the creeps, most likely we don’t want to think or suspect that our child could be sexually abused by a family member or other trusted person, but the reality is only 5% of child sexual abuse is estimated to involve strangers. Many parents will say “if someone touches your private parts” or that people that would do this are “bad people.” We need to say directly to our children that no one – including us, their siblings, their friends, their grandparents, babysitters, teachers, even their doctor shouldn’t touch, look, or show their own private parts. Explain the exceptions (diaper changes, bathing – until they’re old enough, boo-boos, and physical exams with a parent watching to ensure the doctor is respecting their private part.)
And be vigilant for child on child abuse. As much as 40% of abuse is perpetrated by juveniles – often older/stronger siblings, cousins, and peers – and not just ‘playing doctor’ kind of curiosity, but sexually motivated manipulation and exploitation.
When we refer to people that touch privates as ‘bad’ this can confuse children – most offenders are known, trusted, nice, and often loved by the child. They are less prepared to expect this behavior from someone they know and it can make it much more difficult for them to disclose.
I thought sexual abuse would hurt.
Parents often tell their children, “if someone hurts you, tell me.” Adults often associate pain with abuse. But sexual abuse often doesn’t hurt. Children that are not educated that when their private parts are touched that it can feel good – that it’s biologically normal to feel good, can become confused, embarrassed and ashamed. But worst of all – they may not tell because they don’t realize it’s abuse.
So, just tell them – that it can feel good to touch their privates, but only they should be touching their own privates, and only out of sight of others – like in the bathroom or in bed alone. Don’t let their naiveté be used against them.
We only taught our child to yell and tell – we thought that would be enough.
Children are not to blame for being sexually abused.
A number of programs out there still promote the outdated “yell and tell” defense for children. While it may be effective in stranger danger situations, and would be great for all kids to yell as soon as something inappropriate happens – we also live in a world where children are taught not to yell, and to be respectful of their elders. Most kids are not going to yell at their grandparent, their coach, their tutor, etc. The. very people that perpetrate sexual abuse are often the people children trust to protect them – the shock and confusion of sexual abuse often causes the body to ‘freeze’, something that we know is true for adults and children. So yes, we can give kids the right to yell, but also other options to make an excuse, like they have to go to the bathroom, or that they feel sick. That it doesn’t matter how they try to get away, their safety matters more than being polite or obedient. And furthermore – it’s not their fault if they don’t get away. It’s not their fault if they don’t tell, and it’s not their fault if the abuse happens again. Sexual abuse, no matter the child’s awareness or education is never their fault.
Children should not feel guilty for being too afraid to get away from their perpetrator. This is actually how many adults are raped – by fear and shock that a person they thought they could trust turns into their perpetrator. Let your child know that it’s not their job to stop or avoid abuse – that their only job is to TELL. If it happened once or multiple times, they only have to tell, that it’s not their fault.
I didn’t know what to look for – I really didn’t think it would happen.
Many educational programs of the past promoted teaching kids body safety and put the responsibility on children to either protect themselves or tell someone right away. But research has provided a wealth of information on how parents can identify possible warning signs of abusers, symptoms of abuse in children, and most importantly – that minimizing 1:1 contact between the child and adolescents or adults is actually the best way to protect children. Being open about our awareness and speaking up when we see red flag behaviors or situations that increase risk can help keep children safe from harm before an attempt of abuse. Teaching body safety is great. It’s necessary. But so is educating ourselves and all the other adults in our child’s life.
I thought professionals were doing everything they could to protect children.
If your child goes to a school, daycare, or is involved in a youth program – do not assume that they have up to date training and protocol for preventing, detecting, and reporting abuse. It could be argued that most do not. While the media has had a focus on the Catholic Church sex scandal, similar scandals have been continuing with less coverage in our public schools, and other religions and organizations. Don’t assume they are doing their job to keep your child safe – find out.
I thought reporting would solve the problem.
As an organization for the prevention of child sexual abuse, we promote that abuse or suspected abuse needs to be reported. That being said, it doesn’t mean that the perpetrator will be charged and convicted. Child sexual abuse is often a crime with little to no physical evidence. A child’s testimony is often the only evidence and, depending on the age of the child or the parent or prosecutor’s decision, the child may not be put on the stand.
Furthermore, when a report of abuse is made by a parent and the perpetrator has or can fight for custody of the child, there is mounting evidence that child protective services and family court judges are likely to suspect the report was made vindictively and that the child may have been ‘coached’ to say they are being abused. These protective parents often fall into bankruptcy, lose custody of their children and even sent to jail for continuing to stand by their report of abuse.
Each case is unique, and there is no correct answer that we can provide for knowing what your outcome will be, our best advice is to reach out to a privately run advocacy or rape crisis center for advice before reporting and do your research on the issues of child sexual abuse in family court.
I would never have believed people would turn their backs on us.
If you followed the Bill Cosby controversy or happened to hear John Grisham‘s interview defending a friend of his convicted of possessing child pornography, you might be able to begin to understand that people don’t want to accept that child sexual abuse can and is perpetrated by likable, well-respected people. Denial is a powerful force used to protect the human ego. No one wants to accept that they like or love a sexual offender. We want to believe we could spot and avoid such people, but that’s just not possible. We need to accept our own vulnerability and mentally prepare ourselves that it would most likely be someone we trust to violate that trust. Even if we do our best to protect our children and abuse occur, it doesn’t make us stupid or foolish – the blame and shame belongs on the perpetrator.
Just about every survivor or supporter of a survivor that has reached out to us has expressed their pain in being rejected by family that refused to believe them or did believe but were angry at them for reporting and speaking out. It’s their weakness and they will defend it to protect their illusion of reality. If you haven’t experienced this, consider yourself very fortunate. If you have – be sure to know that you are not alone.