Giving your children the information they need to be safe is one of your most important responsibilities as a parent. It's normal to feel uneasy with a subject that's surrounded by taboos and secrecy. You may also worry that you'll cause your children to be confused and fearful about sexuality or distrustful of all adults. This article is for parents who want to be more confident and knowledgeable talking about sexual abuse with their children.
Why talking is important
Child sexual abuse is the exploitation or coercion of a child for the sexual gratification of someone else, usually an adult but sometimes an older child. Abusers are in a position of power over their victims. Some experts estimate that up to one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before age eighteen, and approximately ninety percent of victims know their abuser. Abusers can be family members, friends, teachers, coaches or anyone else who may come into contact with children. Making sure children have accurate information about their bodies, rights and the rules and strategies to follow when abuse occurs is the most important way parents can protect them from abuse. Without this knowledge, children are more vulnerable to the manipulations abusers often use to lure them into physical contact, and they're more likely to keep abuse secret once it has occurred.
Talking with kids about sexual abuse should be an ongoing process that's as natural as other safety lessons such as staying on the sidewalk and buckling a seatbelt. Discussions can be casual conversations that take place any time during your normal routines -- for example, while driving in the car, while you're playing or in response to a question or comment that gives you an opening. Keep your talks plain and simple without covering too much information at one time.
A good way to start is by teaching your children the proper names for parts of the body, including "private parts." Explain that private parts are the parts covered by a swimsuit. You can begin this discussion when you think your child is old enough to understand; usually around age three. Teach children the correct names for private parts, that is, "penis," "vagina," "breasts" and "buttocks," so they'll have the right words to tell you if someone does approach or harm them. Regardless of the terms you use, what's most important is to instill in your children the knowledge that their bodies belong to them and deserve to be respected and protected.
As children learn about their bodies, they need to also learn that they have the right to say "no" to anyone who wants to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, afraid or confused. You can tell them that this is true even when the person is an adult, a relative or someone they like and trust. For children to have confidence that their "no" has meaning, it's important that all members of your family have the same understanding: a "no" will always be respected, even when there's no harm intended. The right to say "no" is reinforced when families have clear and openly discussed rules for respecting privacy and personal boundaries.
Safe and unsafe touches
When children are a little older, usually around age five, they can begin to understand the differences between different types of touch. Explain to them that there is good touching, bad touching and secret touching. Tell them that most touching is good and makes them feel good. Bad touching is when someone hurts them by hitting or pinching or touching them in a way that doesn't feel good or doesn't seem right. Make sure your children understand that no one needs to touch their private parts unless it's a special situation like being examined by a doctor.
Secret touching occurs when someone touches a child's private parts and wants to keep it a secret. Explain to your children that secret touching can be confusing, and sometimes it's not easy to know what to do. But you can encourage your children to always trust their feelings about the way someone touches them, no matter who it is. Be sure they understand that secret touching is always wrong -- but it's never the child's fault. Tell your children that adults can be wrong sometimes. Children should always say "no" to secret touching and get away from the person as fast as they can, even when it's someone in a position of authority such as a teacher, coach or clergy member.
Children need to understand how important it is to tell a parent or another trusted adult when someone bothers them. Abused children often keep it secret because they're embarrassed or afraid of upsetting their parents. The abuser may have used threats such as "I'll hurt you if you tell" or "No one will believe you." If the abuse has been going on for a while, they may be so ashamed about keeping secrets that they continue to keep them. If they're very young, or if they've been told that it's just a game, they may not understand that there's something to tell.
By practicing good communication in your family relationships, you can increase the likelihood that your children will disclose abuse if it happens. If you make a habit of talking to your children about their daily activities, listen to their concerns and care about their feelings, they'll feel safer coming to you if something happens. Make sure your children understand that you may not be able to protect them unless you know what happened. They must tell you any time someone does something to make them feel scared, uncomfortable or confused -- even if it's a person that your family knows and likes or looks up to. With younger children, you may need to be more direct and ask them to tell you if anyone touches their private parts. Above all, be sure your children understand that when they tell you about something that's happened, you will believe, protect and not blame them.
Keep in mind that children do not always disclose abuse in a straightforward way. They may choose to tell an adult other than a parent. They may only hint at what happened to see what kind of response they get or pretend it happened to someone else. Managing your own reaction to a disclosure of abuse is important because children may stop talking if their parents respond with strong emotion rather than calm reassurance.
Taking responsibility for personal safety
As children get older and begin spending more time in activities without close adult supervision, parents should teach them how to be responsible for their own personal safety. Talk with your school-age children about safety precautions in a variety of situations where there might be risk -- for example, in video arcades, locker rooms and any isolated outdoor play areas. Discuss what can happen in different situations, and agree on safety rules for each one. Then check often to make sure that your children are following the rules.
Since the Internet has become a favorite vehicle for people sexually attracted to children who are looking for victims, it deserves special emphasis when you talk with children about taking responsibility for their own safety. They need to understand that the perception of anonymity when interacting in cyberspace makes it easier to take risks and participate in inappropriate or dangerous exchanges. If your children are frequent computer users, it's important to educate yourself about activities popular among young people such as instant messaging, social networking through sites like Facebook, and exchanging photos and video. It's also important to establish firm guidelines and find ways to monitor their activities online.
As children approach puberty, they become more aware of and interested in their own sexuality. For safety's sake, it's important that older children learn about appropriate sexual behavior. When children start asking questions about relationships and sexuality or make observations about sexual content in the media, it's time to talk about your family's standards of sexual conduct and your expectations for your children's sexual behavior with peers. Throughout the teenage years, continue to stress personal safety and responsible behavior. Because teenagers can be vulnerable to sexual abuse by an older person they feel romantically attracted to, it's also important to discuss dealing with being pressured to have sex. By talking openly about how confusing it can be when someone makes them feel good but doesn't respect their feelings, you can help your teenager make the right decisions in dating situations.
National organizations dedicated to child sexual abuse prevention can provide you with more information, including how to recognize signs of abuse and what to do if you suspect it. Two such organization are Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute and The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Adults have a moral obligation to protect children from abuse and to take action whether it involves their child or someone else. Speak up if you see anyone behaving inappropriately toward a child, and report suspected abuse to your local Child Protective Services agency or the installation Family Advocacy Program if you're in a military community. You can also call your state's child abuse reporting hotline or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (800-4-A-CHILD).