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Guarding Against Child Sexual Abuse

You can help protect your children from sexual abuse by providing careful supervision, establishing open communication and giving them the information they need to be safe. It's normal to feel uneasy talking about this subject or worry about confusing your children, but children as young as age 3 can be given tools that will help keep them safe.

Child sexual abuse involves the exploitation or coercion of a child for the sexual gratification of another, typically an adult or older child. It is estimated that up to one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys are sexually abused prior to the age of 18. While most people teach their children the concept of "stranger danger," approximately 90 percent of victims know their abuser, whether the person is a family member, friend, teacher, coach or neighbor.

Child Sexual Abuse Facts

Responsible adult supervision is the most important prevention strategy for children of all ages but is especially critical for young children. Parents should be aware of changes in their child's behavior and trust their instincts if a situation "just doesn't feel right." Making sure school-age children have accurate information about their bodies, rights and the rules to follow if abuse occurs can also help protect them. Without this knowledge, children are more vulnerable to manipulation and may be more likely to keep abuse secret if it occurs.

Getting started

Talking with kids about sexual abuse should be an ongoing process. Discussions can be casual conversations that take place any time during your normal routine or when your child has a question or comment that gives you an opening. Keep your talks plain and simple and make sure your child knows that he or she can always come to you with questions. Other points to consider when discussing this subject with your children include:

  • Asking permission: Children need to be taught to ask parental permission before going off with someone, regardless of whether or not they know the person. Given that most abuse occurs with a known person, parents knowing where their child is, who they’re with and what they’re doing decreases the chances of something happening.
  • Naming body parts: Whether you use the proper terms or not, it is important for your children to be able to communicate about their bodies. Teach your children the names for their body parts, including private parts or parts that are covered by their swimsuits. You can begin this discussion when you think your child is old enough to understand, usually around age 3.
  • Reserving the right to say "no": Regardless of the terms you use, it is important 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 — even when the person is an adult, a relative, or someone they like and trust.
  • Respecting "no": For children to have confidence that "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. Though it may be awkward, teaching your children that they can say "no" to well-intentioned hugs and kisses from others is also important. 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 5, 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.

  • Good touches: Most touches are good and make people feel good. Things like hugs and high-fives are examples of good touches that kids are typically exposed to.
  • Bad touches: These occur when someone hurts them by hitting or pinching or touching them in a way that doesn't feel good or doesn't seem right.
  • Secret touches: These occur when someone touches a child's private parts and wants to keep it a secret. Explain to your children that secret touching is not safe and to always say "no" to secret touches. Teach children that they should get away from the person who is trying to "secret touch" as fast as they can. Teach your child that they must always tell you if something like this happens, and they will never be in trouble.
  • Exceptions: 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. It is important to remind them that those situations are never done in secret and mommy or daddy is with them.

Speaking up

Practicing open communication increases the likelihood that children will disclose uncomfortable situations or sexual abuse. If you make a habit of talking to your children about their daily activities, listening to their concerns and caring about their feelings, they'll feel safer coming to you if something happens.

  • Telling a parent: Children need to understand how important it is to tell a parent or another trusted adult when someone or something bothers them. Abused children often keep secrets because they're embarrassed or afraid of upsetting their parents.
  • Letting them know it's safe to tell: Abusers often use threats such as "I'll hurt you if you tell," or "No one will believe you" to keep their victims quiet. If the abuse has been going on for a while, children may be so ashamed about keeping secrets that they continue to keep them. Encouraging open communication and letting your child know that they are always safe to come to you with a concern is extremely important.
  • Fostering communication: Make sure your children understand that you need to know what happened in order to protect them. 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.
  • Communicating with children: 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. Ask questions and reassure them that they are doing the right thing by talking to you about their concerns.

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.

  • Safety precautions to take: Talk with your school-age children about safety precautions in a variety of situations where they might be at risk—for example, in video arcades, in locker rooms, during sleepovers and at 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.
  • Internet rules: Since the internet has become a favorite vehicle for sexual predators, 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. It's important to educate yourself about activities popular among young people, such as instant messaging, networking through social media sites and exchanging photos and videos. Establish firm guidelines and find ways to monitor their activities online.
  • Establishing boundaries: 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.
  • Rules for teenagers: 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.

Organizations working toward ending abuse

Many 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 organizations are The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and Darkness to Light: End Child Sexual Abuse.

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 at 800-422-4453 (4-A-CHILD).

One of the biggest ways to protect against predators is to create open communication with your children. Talking with your kids is one of the best ways to keep them safe from sexual abuse. You don't need to live in fear of sexual abuse, but you should be informed and your kids should be, too.