Ever since the news of Jerry Sandusky’s deplorable acts of child sexual abuse broke late last year, I’ve wanted to write about it. But whenever I tried to piece together my thoughts, I froze. My fingers, my breathing, my brain, everything.
The prospect of my child (or any child) becoming the victim of sexual abuse makes me…well…
I can’t even label the feelings stirred up by such a notion.
Fear? Panic? Blinding rage? Yes, to all of those and more, I’m sure, if I let myself sit with it long enough.
I doubt my inability to label my reaction makes it any less universal. I’m sure that those of you reading this—those who have children in your lives whom you love dearly—get what I’m saying. And I’ll bet you’re right there with me.
The more and more I kept coming back to this topic, attempting (unsuccessfully) to articulate my response to it, I just got angrier and angrier. I’m angry that it’s a reality of our world in the first place, and I’m angry that so many of us feel powerless because of it—powerless to fulfill one of our most primal obligations to our children: to protect them.
It became clear that trying to write or talk about the topic of child sexual abuse as a means to give myself some sort of peace about it just wasn’t working. So instead of fixating on what I wanted to say, I decided to shift my focus to what I am going todo. The time for hand-wringing was through; I wanted to be productive.
The only problem? I wasn’t sure where to start. I mean, my son and I had shared some vague conversations about who is allowed to touch what, but beyond that, I was pretty stumped as to what should come next. He’s not even four yet. How do I make it clear that this is an important issue to be taken seriously without scaring the bejeezus out of him?
Sensing that I probably wasn’t alone in that, I reached out to Denise Noble, FAM (Families Are Magic) Program Coordinator with Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now). I went in to our conversation hoping to get a few ideas about talking to my preschool-age son about sexual abuse that I could then pass along to the readers of this column. But I got much more than that. I left feeling educated and empowered. I hope what I’ve put together here—a handful of tips coupled with some expert insight from Noble– will do the same for you.
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Learn the facts.
“Child sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate,” explained Noble. “There isn’t a specific demographic for victims or perpetrators. And I think that’s the hardest piece for parents. We all want to be able to visually identify who’s going to harm us so we can stay away from them. But with child sexual abuse, that’s much harder.”
With that in mind, I’m now going to throw some very sobering numbers at you. But I figure, if we’re looking at how we can best protect our kids from something as serious and potentially devastating as sexual abuse, sugarcoating doesn’t do anyone any favors. We need to know what we’re working with.
So here we go…
- 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthdays.
- In over 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the abuser is someone the family knows.
- As many as 60% of child sexual abuse victims are abused by someone the family trusts.
Those numbers,1 as Noble described them, are “earth shattering”.
“A very typical reaction is to want to scoop your children up and never let go. But,” she added, “that’s not realistic. Instead, you need to do your due diligence and be involved.”
Which brings us to our next point…
Don’t be afraid to do your homework.
Part of “doing your due diligence” is doing your homework when it comes to who is caring for your child when you’re not around—particularly with infants and young toddlers; according to Noble, children under three are the most vulnerable to child maltreatment across the board.
When sussing out childcare situations, “You want to see transparency,” said Noble. Remember: you have the right to know.
Ask the daycare center about their abuse prevention policies and if they do background checks. Are they ok with you stopping by unannounced? How do they respond if you actually do?
Find out how long church nursery workers attend services before being allowed to help with childcare and ask what the volunteer application process entails.
Even if you’re just leaving your child with a friend for a couple hours, ask who else will be there and what the plan is for the day.
Granted, being assertive about getting these questions answered can make it seem like you don’t trust anyone. But, as Noble put it, “Sometimes as parents we just need to err on the side of caution and well-being for our child. And I think that it’s also helpful for older kids to hear and know that everywhere they go, you are making sure, to the best of your ability, they’re as safe as can be. “
Start the conversation early.
Facilitating and nurturing honest, open communication with your kids is key in preventing child sexual abuse. According to Noble, that communication happens along two tracks of conversation, starting as soon as toddlerhood and preschool, if not earlier.
“The first track of conversation is just healthy communication and healthy sexual development. Meaning, you’re going to teach your children the correct anatomical names for all of their body parts.”
The second track involves talking with kids about good touch versus bad touch. Noble pointed out that this is something most parents do automatically when we use phrases like “gentle hands” or “nice hands” as our children learn to interact with others.
“I think that’s also a good time to give kids language around the idea that some touches don’t feel good, “ Noble explained. “As in, ‘That didn’t feel good when you hit Katie. That hurt her. We don’t hurt people, and we don’t let people hurt you.’ You can have those conversations that are very natural, but they also set a foundation for you.”
Empower; don’t scare
As your kids get older, the focus and content of your conversations about sexual abuse will change. Around the time kids hit elementary school (ages four, five, and six), they’ll begin to understand the idea of “appropriate boundaries”—boundaries that some people could choose to cross. It’s essential (and empowering) for them to know what to do should that situation present itself. But it’s also essential that we share that knowledge with them in a way that doesn’t leave them afraid to venture out into the world and be around other people.
“I usually equate it to how you prepare them for a fire in your house,” said Noble. “Fires are scary. Unfortunately fires can be devastating. You never want it to happen, but you’re discussing it with your family. That’s empowering to children.”
The key is to keep it simple and—more than anything else—not to make the child feel in any way responsible for the situation. In fact, you can go with something like this, as was modeled for me by Noble during our conversation:
“There may be some people–and it could even be people we love—who, when they touch you, it makes you feel uncomfortable. You have the right to say no. You can come and tell Mommy2 right away; you can come and tell Daddy. You’ve done nothing wrong.’”
Trust (and respect) those instincts…yours and theirs
You’re given parental instincts for a reason. If something feels “off” with your child and you suspect that his or her relationship with an adult or an older kid is the cause, don’t ignore that feeling—even if you’ve done your homework, had all the necessary conversations, and everything looks right “on paper.” You have the right to act on that suspicion. Period.
And just as you trust your instincts, you need to trust your children’s as well; their feelings shouldn’t be trivialized just because of their age. While hugging his uncle goodbye might be the “polite” response, if your child resists and you guilt him into doing it anyway, you’re potentially sending a pretty powerful message—and probably not the one you want to be putting out there.
“Their gut instincts and their feelings have to be respected,” said Noble. “When you force that hug—which is a very typical, common response–you’re dis-empowering the child. You’re saying, ‘Well, I hear you, but I’m still going to make you do it anyway.’”
She went on to add, “Children naturally go through some separation anxiety or some stranger anxiety, but I think, at times, certain people can feel ‘different’ for them. We have to pay attention to that.”
And why wouldn’t you? Your child’s future well-being could be at stake. That trumps everything else.
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To learn more about what you can do to help stop child abuse of all kinds, please visit Greater Richmond SCAN’s website. There you’ll find information about SCAN’s local child abuse prevention efforts, as well as links to resources and agenciesdedicated to educating the public on how to prevent, recognize, and support victims of abuse.
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- These statistics are from Darkness to Light, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending child sexual abuse. SCAN uses Darkness to Light’s resources in their Stewards of Children training, a program focused on educating and empowering adult to do what they can to stop child sexual abuse. Check out their 7 Steps to Protecting Our Children from Sexual Abuse to learn more. ↩
- According to additional statistics provided by Darkness to Light, children who disclose sexual abuse often tell a trusted adult rather than a parent. Help your children identify other people they can go to should something like this happen to them—a teacher, the parent of a close friend, a coach, people your family deems “safe.” ↩