As many as one in every four girls and one in every six boys are likely to experience some type of sexual victimization before their eighteenth birthday. This statistic typically causes parental anxiety and paranoia to skyrocket, yet parents and other caregivers can build a family arsenal of knowledge, understanding, and skills that will reduce the risk that children will be targeted while also increasing the likelihood that children will seek help if they are abused.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Contrary to popular belief that sex offenders are strange men who lure children into their cars or alleys with promises of ice cream and candy, over 90% of offenders are men, women and older children whom potential child victims already know and trust. They may be charming, likeable, educated, and well-respected members of the community. In fact, it is these qualities that give offenders easy and frequent access to children. Adequate supervision of children, a healthy level of vigilance, and willingness to trust and follow up on gut-level instincts are the best weapons parents can use on the front lines of prevention.
WHY CHILDREN DON’T TELL
Studies suggest that only one in every ten children who are sexually abused will ever tell anyone. Children find it hard to tell for many reasons. Some children are embarrassed or ashamed by what has happened to them. For others, the offender may have tricked the child into feeling guilty or responsible for the abuse. Children may also hesitate because they don’t wish to cause problems or burden the family, or because they are afraid of what may happen as a result of telling. Others can’t imagine that anyone would believe them because the offender is often a relative, family friend, or respected member of the community.
Sexual abuse cannot be avoided simply by teaching your child a list of “rules” about touching. Most children cannot protect themselves from someone who is older, wiser, and in a position of authority. Recognizing and acknowledging the fact that some grownups have touching problems will take some of the burden of responsibility off the shoulders of children and may increase the likelihood that they will tell.
One in seven children who are abused are under the age of seven, yet many parents feel uncomfortable talking about sexuality and abuse until their children are much older. Children who are at lowest risk are those who have learned from a young age, through teaching and observation, characteristics of healthy relationships.
Teaching toddlers the names for all body parts, including “the names that a doctor would use,” encourages respect and open communication. Young children also learn about communication, safety and equality in relationships, and empathy by watching their caregivers model these qualities. Children who understand these concepts are less likely to be targeted by an offender.
Evidence suggests that children are more likely to disclose abuse when a caretaker opens the door for conversation. Use natural teaching moments to raise topics such as privacy, healthy relationships, and abuse. For example, as your child leaves for a sleepover, take a moment to review the bedtime routine and point out tasks with which your child should and should not need help, such as getting dressed, wiping, and bathing (if possible, consider a “no bathing” rule when on sleepovers). Note that because many schools in the U.S. today continue to teach only stranger danger concepts, parents need to be proactive and comprehensive in addressing this issue with their children.
When you enroll your child in a new day care, school, or summer camp program, ask questions regarding their policies and procedures for screening employees as well as volunteers. Are employees and volunteers allowed to be alone with children? Do they require employees and volunteers to receive training about sexual abuse awareness, prevention, and reporting?
IF IT HAPPENS
Children very rarely make up stories about abuse. While it may be hard to hear, trust that your child is telling you something that needs to be heard.
Try to remain calm. While shock, fear, anger, and disgust are normal parental feelings in response to this experience, when sensed by a child they can frighten a child into not telling.
Listen carefully, giving your child your full attention. In a private place, allow your child to tell their story in his/her own words.
Refrain from asking closed-ended questions that lead to a “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, ask open-ended questions such as, “What happened next,” “Tell me more,” or “Is there anything more you want to tell me?” Remember that it is not your job to investigate, but only to gather enough information to make a report to authorities.
Be careful not to blame or embarrass the child. Don’t under react or minimize the information. Show love and support as you normally would with words, gestures, and physical affection.
Congratulate your child. Tell them that they did the right thing by sharing, that they showed great courage, and that you will be there to help them in any way that you can.
Reassure your child that they have done nothing wrong. What happened was not their fault. Some adults/older children have touching problems for which they need to get help.
Report the abuse right away to Child Protective Services or the local police. They will work with you to help make sure your child is safe and to coordinate additional services as needed.
Interested in learning more about how to protect your child? Child Safe offers a FREE online training program for parents and other caretakers. Visit childsafeeducation.org for more information or to log on to the free course.#
Courtesy of The Child Safe program of Catholic Charities and Allison West, L.C.S.W.-C., Director of Child Abuse Prevention at the St. Vincent’s Center.