How Can We Protect Our Children From Sexual Abuse?
Unfortunately, most of us have had the experience of turning on the news or opening up the paper and learning about the sexual abuse of a child by a previously trusted adult like a coach, teacher, family friend, or babysitter. Over the last several months many of us have heard of the numerous allegations of child sexual abuse by former Penn State coach, Jerry Sandusky. Prior to these allegations, Mr. Sandusky was viewed as a hard working family man who generously devoted his time to charity work and children. Parents may wonder how they can protect their own children from being violated by a seemingly trustworthy adult. Current research indicates that as many as one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 16 years old. Fortunately, there are some basic principles we can teach our children that will make them less vulnerable to adults who may try to hurt them. I have worked with many children who have been sexual abused and most of them were not provided with information that could have helped to either prevent the abuse or bring help to the situation more quickly. In our society we do a great job of teaching children about fire safety, cautions about unwrapped Halloween candy, and warnings about looking both ways before crossing the street, but we often drop the ball when it comes to body safety and sexual abuse prevention. Let’s explore a few of the ways parents can help to protect their children and equip them to reach out for help when necessary.
A basic principle that parents can implement with children as young as 3 years old is the belief: “My Body Belongs to Me.” For example, a common mistake many parents make is to insist their children kiss Aunt Betty goodbye or give Grandpa Joe a big hug even when a child is feeling uncomfortable or uninterested in any physical contact. We may force our children to kiss or hug relatives or friends because we think it is proper social etiquette, but what we are actually teaching our children is that others have the right to touch their bodies even when they do not feel comfortable or like the touch. On the contrary, we need to teach children they have the right to refuse kisses, hugs, and any touches that makes them feel uncomfortable even when it is good old Uncle Bob or loving Grandma Jean. Teaching a child it is O.K. to tell a grown up not to touch their body is empowering and helps to instill the belief that a child’s body belongs to them and no one can touch it without permission or consent. So the next time you are leaving a relative’s home and Aunty Sue wants a big kiss and hug goodbye from your little one, you can very politely turn to your child and ask, “Would you like to give Aunty a kiss?” and if the answer is “no” simply say, “O.K, then tell her goodbye and thank you for the cookies.” In addition, if a child does attempt to set a touching limit on a friend or relative and a parent notices others ignoring or dismissing their child’s limit setting, it is the parent’s obligation to step in and help that person understand their family “rules” regarding touching. For example, if little Eric says to grandpa, “I don’t want a hug right now,” and grandpa responds, “Oh come on, you don’t want to hurt grandpa’s feelings.” A parent needs to step in and say something like, “It seems Eric doesn’t want any hugs right now and we always teach him he has permission to decide when he wants hugs. How about a great big friendly wave goodbye for now?” This is a great way to role model setting healthy boundaries.
Another important job for parents is to teach their children the proper names for “private” body parts. We often come up with cute code words for our children to use when referring to their genitals such as “wee- wee,” while we assign proper names for every other body part and do not suggest calling an ear a “wing-wang” or an elbow a “she-she.” These code words are often due to our own discomfort and we unfortunately pass this discomfort on to our children. This learned embarrassment about body parts can be dangerous. Our children need to know from an early age that there is no shame around their genitals so they will feel comfortable coming to us and telling us if someone is touching their body in a way they do not like. Research has demonstrated that one of the top reasons why children do not tell when they are being sexually abused is due to embarrassment. It is important to instill in children that we are comfortable talking about any part of their body and they do not have to use code words when referring to certain body parts because of shame induced feelings. Even if we have started out using code words with our children, it is never too late to correct the mistake. For example, we can simply have a brief matter-of-fact conversation with our kids explaining that the proper name for their “wee-wee” is penis and that doctors use the word penis for that body part or that the real word for “hum-hum” is vagina and doctors call “hum-hums” a vagina. Children need to learn that there is complete freedom and safety in talking to parents about anything including their body parts,
Another important concept to begin teaching children is the difference between “safe secrets” and “unsafe secrets.” Many children who have been sexually abused were tricked into keeping the abuse a secret. Children need to know that if someone touches them and tells them to keep it a secret that “touching secrets” are always unsafe and an adult needs to be told right away. A parent can have simple and direct conversations with their children about these concepts such as after buying Daddy a surprise present for his birthday a parent could say, “We are going to surprise Daddy with this shirt at his birthday party. This a safe secret because we are only keeping it for a short time and no one will be hurt with this secret. If someone tries to touch your body or makes you touch their body and asks you to keep it a secret that is an unsafe secret and you should tell me or Daddy right away. Remember your body belongs to you!”
As much as we try to provide our children with helpful tools, the prevention of sexual abuse needs to include diligent awareness of the individuals who have access to our children. Parents and other adults have the responsibility to be aware of signs which could indicate that someone is a risk to a child. Some signs may include:
- An individual who forces tickles, hugs, or wrestling even when a child does not want this type of contact.
- A person who spends most of their spare time with children and very little time with people their own age.
- An individual who seems “too good to be true,” and regularly offers to baby-sit for free or takes kids on frequent overnight excursions.
- Someone who buys children expensive gifts or gives money for no reason.
- Someone who doesn’t respect boundaries such as walking in on a child or teen in the bathroom.
- Someone who insists on alone time with kids or finds ways to get kids alone without any interruptions.
- Someone who is preoccupied or interested in how a child’s or teen’s body is developing and perhaps frequently brings up the topic.
It is also important to know how to respond if a child reveals they have been sexually abused. Research indicates that how a child is responded to when they disclose sexual abuse has a significant impact on their ability to recover and find healing after the violation. One of the most important ideas to keep in mind is to STAY CALM. There is incredible pressure for kids to keep silent when being sexually abused and when they finally have the courage to tell, they need an adult who will listen to them calmly and reassure them it is O.K to share this information. If an adult becomes overly upset, the child can misinterpret this to mean they have done something wrong and the child could shut down. It is also very important to reassure the child that they did the right thing by telling and that you are very glad they made the brave decision to tell. Many children do not tell about sexual abuse because they are afraid of upsetting their parents. Kids need to know their parents can handle hearing anything their child shares and that they are proud of them for telling. In addition, if a child shares with you about being sexually abused try and assess the child’s current safety. Make sure the child is safe and do what is necessary to protect the child from further harm. It is also important to repeatedly reassure the child that they are not responsible for the abuse. Lastly, reach out for help from professionals to provide guidance as to next steps. For example, report the incident to the police, call the child abuse hotline number and report the incident (in Illinois 1-800-25-ABUSE or National 1-800-4-A-CHILD), and contact a professional counselor experienced in the treatment of sexual abuse. A helpful website that provides further information regarding responding to sexual abuse disclosures and sexual abuse prevention is www.StopItNow.org . In addition, if you are interested in arranging a workshop for children and parents regarding sexual abuse prevention, please contact First Baptist Counseling Center at 847-695-8710 or www.firstbaptistelgin.org