In a Nutshell: Parents need to teach their children about sexual abuse prevention from the very beginning. When parents are open, informed, and proactive, they have the best chance of keeping kids safe.
As part of Child Abuse Prevention Month, I feel it is so important to talk about sexual abuse prevention. As a Child Abuse Prevention Specialist in my pre-motherhood life, I loved going around to schools and empowering kids with knowledge that could possibly help them avoid or get out of tragic situations. With my own kids, it takes on a whole new meaning. While there is nothing we can do to absolutely insure our children’s safety, there is so much we can do to give our families the best chance.
Be Open. If children know they can express themselves freely and talk about hard things with you, they are more likely to report any confusing feelings or cue you in to situations that may be dangerous. If they know you are always angry and they are always in trouble, they’re not going to talk to you.
Be Informed. Although it is important to teach “Stranger Danger” to our kids, the likelihood of your child being abused by a stranger lurking in shadows is extremely rare. According to the Academy of Pediatrics, four of five cases of sexual abuse are by someone who is familiar with the child. Nancy McBride of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said,
“Parents need to get away from that mythology and deal with the reality [that] if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be someone within your circle. It’s going to be somebody you know. I know it’s scary, but we need to come to grips with that. The hardest idea for parents to embrace is that somebody in this position of trust and authority could be the ultimate betrayer of their children. A creepy weirdo is so much easier for us to understand because we can put that person in a separate category.”
Be Proactive. Many of those reading this blog will be confronted with sexual abuse in their families. An international study that analyzed 169 other studies found that lifetime prevalence rates of sexual abuse for females is 25% and for males is 8% (World Health Organization, 2001). That means about 1 in 4 girls will be confronted with sexual abuse. As parents, we need to begin teaching abuse prevention in age-appropriate ways as soon as kids are around two years old.
1. For Toddlers and Preschoolers: The main points to teach are the correct names of private parts of the body, and the idea that they are special and no one touches them. Your conversation with a toddler should be low-key and matter-of-fact. It might go like this:
“Private parts are parts that swimsuits and underwear cover up. These are parts that no one else touches. The only people who touch those private parts are doctors who help kids stay well, and parents who need to help little kids stay clean after they go potty.”
Another time you might add, “Those parts are private. If someone ever touches those parts, you can yell STOP! Can you yell that really loud with me? Let’s practice that. You can yell STOP to anyone who is touching private parts, even a grown-up or a bigger kid. Then you run and tell me. Can you pretend like you are running and telling me? Nice Job!”
During these years, it is important for kids to know they can tell someone to stop if they get touches they don’t like. If a child is being tickled and says, “Stop!” that should be honored. Even very young children need to know they can listen to their feelings, and have control over what happens to their bodies. Listen to them if they don’t want to have a certain babysitter, or play at a particular house. Ask questions to understand why they may feel uncomfortable.
2. For School-aged Children: Sending kids to school often causes anxiety for parents because so much of their experiences are now out of our control. Some of the frequent conversations you might have with your older kids might sound like this:
“No adult should ask you to keep a secret. Surprises are things like birthday presents. Secrets are things that people don’t want to ever be found out. What are some surprises that would be okay to keep quiet from me? What are some secrets that kids shouldn’t be asked to keep? If anyone asks you to keep a secret that makes you feel uncomfortable or is confusing, just let me know.”
“There are lots of different kids of touches, but most of them could be called Good Touches or Bad Touches. What are some good touches? What kinds of touches make you feel good inside? Other touches might make you feel bad or confused inside. Bad touches might happen when someone plays too rough, tries to hold you too close, or touches you too often. Someone might even try to touch the private parts of your body. You have the right to say NO to any touches that make you feel uncomfortable because it is your body.”
“Most people are really, really nice. But some people want to touch kids in private places. It might even be someone who is usually really nice, but it still isn’t okay. No one can touch you there. If anyone every tries to touch your private parts, or asks you to touch theirs, here is what you do…” Then practice with them to yell STOP, to RUN, and to TELL. I love practicing with my kids and hearing them yell at the top of their lungs at the imaginary offender.
One additional consideration for this age is to be aware of kids on sports teams, girls scouts, tutoring, and other out-of home-activities. Be so careful of the other children and adults who spend time with your children. Every adult working with children in any established organization should have a background check available to parents. You should get to know the adult well, and to keep your eyes wide open. If an adult seems to be taking an unusual interest in your child, giving them gifts, or treating them special, be wary. Talk to kids directly and ask questions like, “Have you ever felt uncomfortable with him? Has anything happened that you want to tell me about?” Talk to kids about recent news events and ask, “What would you do if you were in that kind of situation?” Reassure kids that they can always come and talk to you if something ever happens, it is not their fault, and you will not be angry with them.
I could go on and on about this topic (and I guess I already have…). Parents, please start early. Discuss abuse often and openly to your children so they know they can talk to you about hard things. The skills they learn will help them stay safe now, and form healthy relationships later in life. Be Open. Be Informed. Be Proactive.