The prevention of sexual abuse in children is an important yet uncomfortable topic. We can not allow ourselves to avoid discussion and education on this matter. We can not spare ourselves awkward moments now only to risk a life time of hurt and pain for our children.
One of the biggest obstacles we must overcome in order to protect our children from sexual abuse is our awkwardness about the subject. We need to be comfortable thinking about the risks and comfortable talking to our children about anything and everything.
Many people have cutesy or pet names for their children’s anatomy. This is ill-advised. Children should know the proper names for their body parts so that they can communicate effectively about them. When I was a child, I was taught that everything under my bathing suit was my “private parts.” This meant that when I had questions about these parts of my body, I did not have the vocabulary in order to communicate my concerns. It also meant that when I was abused, I was unable to effectively communicate what was done to me. Mine is not an unusual story, there are many who have been abused and not been able to tell anyone about it because they lack the vocabulary to do so.
My children have both been educated on their body parts as early and as accurately as possible. It is best to remember that children don’t have the negative associations that we do with certain body parts. To a toddler, their penis is no different than their toes and their nose. If my two year old can understand the difference between her vulva, her vagina, and her anus then there is no reason for us adults to be referring to this region of her body as a “flower” or a “vajayjay.”
Another common mistake is to teach children to always obey. Children of all ages need to know that their body is theirs, and they have the right to say no to anything that makes them uncomfortable.
This means not pressuring them to hug grandma if they don’t want to. This means stopping immediately if they say “no” during a tickle fight.
Beyond respecting when our children say no, we also need to teach them to respect when others are uncomfortable. It might seem harmless to let one child steal a hug or kiss from another who doesn’t want to be touched, but in fact by allowing this sort of behavior, we are sending them both poor messages. To the child whose feelings are being ignored, we are saying “it is ok for others to use your body for their personal enjoyment.” To the child who is allowed to touch another child against their will, we are saying “your wants and desires are more important than the comfort and safety of others.” These are lessons we can not afford to be teaching.
Boundaries are crucial. We never want to shame our children for their bodies nor do we want create such strict boundaries that they feel disconnected from us. That said, we do want to make it clear to our children that touching another person’s body in certain areas is something strictly for adults to do with other adults. Our children need to know that, while it is ok for them to touch their own penis/vulva in the privacy of their bedroom, it is not ok for them to do it in front of other people. They also need to know that it is especially not ok for another person to touch them there- no matter who the other person is.
Our children also need to know that it is never ok to keep a secret from us, that they should always tell us when someone asks them to keep a secret.
Explain to your children the difference between a surprise (a good thing that we are waiting until a special time to tell someone which will make them happy, like what we got them for their birthday) and a secret (something that is maybe confusing or not 100% good, which we keep from others indefinitely and which they would feel sad about if they knew). Our children need to know that we will never be angry at them no matter what the secret is, and that if someone else has asked them to keep a secret then that other person was wrong to do so.
I can not stress enough how important it is to keep the lines of communication open with our children.
This open, honest, comfortable communication between us and our children has multi-purposes:
– It deters predators because children who talk to their parents about everything are less likely to keep their secrets.
– It deters predators because children who have been educated in appropriate boundaries and empowered to own their body are more likely to say “no” when touched inappropriately.
– If the worst does happen and your child is victimized, they will likely feel safe telling you what happened.
– If the worst does happen and your child is victimized, they will have the vocabulary to articulate exactly what happened when they tell you, when they report it to the police, and when they work through it in therapy.
No children are exempt from the risk of sexual assault, however there are certain traits that can increase a child’s risk of being targeted by a predator.
These traits include but are not limited to children who are disabled, children who lack strong bonds with their caregivers, and children who are more easily manipulated than their peers. It is also worth noting that most healthy, normal children have a curiosity about sex which, if we do not educate them on the matter, could be exploited by a predator. We must teach them or someone else, someone with less than admirable motives, will teach them for us.
Now, here is the single most important aspect of protecting our children against sexual abuse:
Trust no one.
I know it sounds awful, cynical, jaded. But it is true.
There is a popular myth that predators are a “certain type” of person. A myth that leads parents to believe that they can “spot” a predator. There is no one “type” of person who abuses children. You can not “spot” a predator.
Sexual predators are males, females. They are teens, young adults, middle-aged, elderly. They are gay, straight, bi. They are married, single, divorced. They are parents. They are childless. They can be anyone, anywhere, at any time.
The one thing that all sexual predators have in common is this: they are someone you trust.
Often times parents are worried about that guy down the street, that stranger at the store, the unknown person lurking in the shadows. Think about this though: when would any of those people have access to your children? They aren’t likely to assault your child because they aren’t ever likely to be alone with your child.
Who do you really need to worry about? The people who you willingly give access of your children to. Family. Friends. Family members of friends. Team coaches. Church leaders. Teachers. Tutors. Sexual predators are master manipulators. They know how to not only get your child alone, but how to get you to happily hand over your child to them. Many predators can even manipulate your children into being willing, eager participants in their own abuse. If you don’t believe me, you should read this 5 page article written by real life child molesters (click here) describing in their words how they feel, how they think, and how they get parents and children to trust them so that they can sexually assault again and again.
One of the most terrifying truths about people who sexually abuse children is that on the surface they share many traits with loving and kind caregivers.
Imagine a father who, in an effort to help his tired wife, gives the children their bedtime story at night. He is close with his children, helps them with their homework, plays video games with them, occasionally takes them for special one-on-one time on the weekends. Sounds like a nice husband, an involved father. Sounds like the kind of man many women would be grateful to have raising their children.
It also sounds like red flags of a child predator.
I know many of you are probably offended by that last statement. Many of you are thinking to yourself, “my husband would never!”
Consider this: How many women before you have thought those exact same words?
About 30% of child sexual assault victims were abused by a relative. Each of those mothers had thought to themselves, “my child is safe with their -father, sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc..” and each of those mothers was wrong.
So what can you do?
– Make sure you vocalize to your child that it is never ok for another person to touch their genitals (unless it is a doctor and even in that situation, a parent should be present). Make sure you vocalize to your child that this rule applies to everyone, even the people they love most in this world. This is not a conversation that should happen once, or even once a year. This is something that should be addressed bi-monthly if not weekly.
– Make sure you vocalize to your child that they can tell you anything. That if another person has been inappropriate with them, you won’t be mad at them. Make sure you vocalize to your child that it doesn’t matter who it is about, they can always come to you. Again, this is not a one-time conversation but an on-going discussion that should happen frequently.
– Familiarize yourself with the signs of abuse and watch your children for any signs of abuse. Do not ignore changes in behavior as this is one of the most common red flags that something is wrong.
– Encourage group events in lieu of one-on-one time with extended family and friends. Encourage public places in lieu of people’s homes for playdates and visits. Even a child predator who has managed to earn your trust still can’t abuse your child if they are never alone with your child.
In general just be selective of who you allow alone with your children. Provide less opportunities for abuse. Give your children the tools they need to get help if something is amiss.
You don’t want to live your life in fear.
Your becoming paranoid isn’t going to be healthy for you nor your children.
But educate yourself.
A general awareness. Some statistics. Some common traits.
Dispel the myths from your thought processes.
Keep the facts in the back of your mind as you make your day-to-day parenting choices.