Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: What Parents Need to Know
Dr. Jennifer Hansen, Child Abuse Pediatrician
There have been several high-profile child sexual abuse cases in the news recently, and we seem to hear more-and-more about these incidents happening. According to studies, one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.
So how can we help keep our kids safe? Education and empowerment are the key.
What to Teach Your Kids
A common myth is that these acts are perpetrated by strangers. More often than not, the person is well-known and someone the child trusts. In fact, 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know their abuser, whether it’s a relative, close family friend, teacher, coach or other trusted adult.
One critical step to help prevent sexual abuse is to have ongoing conversations with your child from an early age. It’s easier to have an open dialogue from the time they start to walk and talk, then if you waited until they are 8, 10 or 12-years-old.
Teach your child about their body parts and call them by their proper names. Your child is never too young to learn the correct terminology. We don’t teach our children “cute” names for their nose or knees, and we shouldn’t teach them other names for their private parts either. The reason this is important is because your child needs to be able to tell someone what happened. For instance, if your daughter tells her teacher that something happened to her “bobo,” the teacher doesn’t know what that is. However, if she’s more specific, the teacher can disclose the incident and get your daughter the help she needs immediately.
Teach your child about keeping their body safe. Instead of describing touches as “good” and “bad,” talk about “safe” touches. Let your child know that it’s not ok for someone to touch parts of their body that are covered with underwear.
There are exceptions, but you need to explain the reasons to your child. Let them know that sometimes doctors need to look at their private parts to make sure their body is healthy, but that you should always be in the exam room with them. Also, if you have a toddler that needs help in the bathroom, let them know who is safe to help them.
Tell your child it’s not ok for anyone to do something to their body that makes them feed scared or unsafe. The reason you want to identify safe and unsafe touches is because sexual abuse doesn’t always physically hurt. If you ask a four-year-old to show you where they were hurt, they can’t always make that association. On the flipside, if you ask that same child if they were touched in an unsafe place they’d be able tell you.
Teach your child not to keep secrets from you. Many times, perpetrators will tell their victims not to tell their parents. You need to convey with your child that they can tell you anything, and you won’t be mad. On average, a child will wait two years before telling a parent about the sexual abuse. The sooner you find out, the quicker you can stop the abuse.
Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse
How do you know if your child is being sexually abused or groomed by a perpetrator? It can be challenging because every child responds differently. A warning sign may be a sudden and significant change in behavior. For instance, your child starts to have bathroom accidents, expresses sexualized behaviors, a loss of appetite, afraid of being left alone with someone, sudden fear of the dark, starts to withdrawal from friends and family, becomes increasingly aggressive or starts to do poorly in school.
Some of these things can be normal, but a sudden change from your child’s baseline behavior should make you stop and evaluate the situation.
If you child discloses an incident to you, but isn’t quite clear when describing what happened, don’t let it go. If it doesn’t seem right and you think twice about it, you need to look into it. This can be difficult, because again perpetrators are usually someone you trust.
You Suspect Sexual Abuse: Now What?
If you suspect someone is sexually abusing your child or another child, even if you’re not sure, contact Social Services in your state. Your call can be anonymous.
Once a report has been filed, a social worker will speak with the child to gather more details about the incident and they’ll determine if there’s reason for concern or if the child should participate in a more detailed forensic interview, which is done at a child advocacy center. Child advocates are trained to speak with children about sensitive issues and will determine if additional assessment is needed.
It’s important to remember just because you suspect abuse has occurred, it’s not your responsibility to prove it.
Empower Children to Speak Up
One of the best things we can do as parents is to empower our children to speak up when it comes to their body. We’re all guilty of giving our children mixed-messages. We force them to kiss relatives, hug family friends or sit on Santa’s lap, even when they don’t want to. By doing this we’re teaching them a very dangerous lesson that if another trusted adult tells them to do something with their body that they don’t want to do, they should submit to it.
If your child doesn’t want to give someone a hug or be affectionate – don’t make them. Instead, say “you can give your grandpa a hug or a kiss if you want to.” Empower your child to decide what they want to do with their body and encourage this from an early age. Let them make their own choices based on what makes them comfortable. Give them the power to say “no” and remember it’s never too late to start the conversation with your child about sexual abuse.
Learn more about Preventing Child Sexual Abuse and talking with your kids about sexual abuse.
Learn more about the Division of Child Abuse and Neglect at Children’s Mercy.
Learn more about the Missouri Department of Social Services and the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline.
Learn more about the Kansas Department for Children and Families Protection Report Center.