[Update: I recently discussed this subject more fully on the web show I co-host, "The Intentional Parent." Click here to see the episode.]
Some friends and I recently discussed a news story about a little girl who had been abducted from her home, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a registered sex offender. As we talked, it was apparent that we all struggle with whether, when, and how to talk to our small children about sexual abuse. Because it’s such a difficult thing to think about, and because we’re typically not very educated about sexual abuse ourselves, we often feel unsure about how to approach the topic with our kids.
But we really have to. Silence puts them at risk.
So let me give you some quick information about sexual abuse in general, and then I’ll make some suggestions about proactively preventing it. It’s our job to empower our kids against sexual abuse, and knowledge—both our own, and theirs—is crucial.
Factors Associated with Child Sexual Abuse:
- Perpetrators: Though we all fear a stranger grabbing our kids and molesting them, this is isn’t really very common. 80% of offenders are known to the child: a family member, authority figure, or acquaintance. So even though it’s alarming that there are 64 registered sex offenders within a two-mile radius of the preschool my son presently attends, he is more likely to be abused by someone he knows. Most perpetrators are smart, likeable, and good with children; they find ways to gain access to children by working in or volunteering in roles that will allow them to be around kids. Single moms with daughters are particularly at risk because perpetrators seek out relationships with these mothers to gain access to their daughters.
- Context of Sexual Abuse: Because most perpetrators are known by the victim, abuse occurs in the context of the victim trusting the perpetrator, where the perpetrator entices the child (by telling them “you are special,” or by providing special treats or privileges). The offender then persuades the child to keep the secret. The victim may want to please the perpetrator (who is trusted), or the perpetrator may threaten the child that if they tell they’ll get in trouble or never see their mom again.
- Preconditions for Sexual Abuse to Occur: For a perpetrator to abuse, four preconditions must be met:
- A motivation to abuse. A perpetrator must be sexually interested in children (which can happen for a number of reasons).
- The overcoming of internal obstacles, like empathy, or the fear of getting caught.
- The overcoming of external obstacles. Parental supervision must be absent, and the right location must be found.
- The overcoming of the resistance of the child victim.
Look at these preconditions. Notice that we can’t do anything about the first two. And the third one we can control only to a certain degree. We can be careful about who we leave our children with, but even when we are zealous, we can’t be with our kids every minute.
It’s therefore very important that we really work on the fourth precondition and arm our kids in a way that perpetrators can’t overcome their resistance. The children least vulnerable to sexual abuse are the ones who receive emotional and physical closeness to their caregivers and who are informed about the privacy of their own body and empowered to say no.
So how do we inform and empower our kids?
Protecting our children by making them aware is definitely a challenge because we want to inform them without scaring them. Here are some suggestions to help you talk to your youngster. As they get older, other types of prevention and discussion will probably be necessary.
- Give children permission to own their own bodies and to respect the privacy of other people’s bodies. This can come up naturally, like when they’re in the tub. Explain that it’s OK for them to touch their own bodies, but that no one else should touch anyone else’s private parts (which can be described as the places that their bathing suit covers) unless it’s the doctor when Mom or Dad is there too. Likewise, don’t force them to give hugs, so they get the message that touching should never be coercive or forced.
- Focus on personal safety by talking about how to keep our bodies safe. If you approach the topic by talking about how we keep our bodies safe (using seatbelts, wearing sunscreen, wearing bike helmets), then teaching “touching safety” can follow naturally. Then you can play a “what if” game that they’ll love: “What if you wanted to ride your bike but couldn’t find your helmet?” “What if the babysitter tried to touch your private parts?” “What if you hurt your private parts—could the doctor touch you?” Then brainstorm problem-solving with them by asking “Then what would you do? What’s something you could say?” They’ll enjoy asking you some “what if” scenarios, too.
- Make it explicit that they can always tell you anything. Often perpetrators can continue to abuse because the child feels guilty about accepting some sort of bribe and feels they are to blame and that they will get in trouble. Perpetrators play up this fear. If we consistently tell our kids that we’ll always love them, even when they make bad choices, they’ll feel more freedom to come to us.
- Discourage secrets by distinguishing between secrets and surprises. Unlike a secret, which you’re never supposed to tell, a surprise is something you’re waiting to tell at the right time (like what we got Grandpa for Christmas), and that makes someone happy. Children need to be explicitly told that if anyone tells them to keep a secret from their parents, they should tell their parents immediately.
- Be aware that children have wonderful instincts. If your child is uncomfortable with someone or a situation, listen to and believe them. Teach your child that if they feel uncomfortable with someone that they should tell you. And we should stay very tuned in to our own instincts as well.
- Keep the discussion going. One conversation won’t do it. You’ll need to talk to your kids many times, so watch for frequent opportunities to bring up the subject naturally, like when they’re using the toilet, taking a bath, visiting the doctor, etc.
Let me say in closing that I know that conversations like these can be difficult, even confusing—for both you and your child. But it really is crucial that you arm them with the knowledge that can protect them. And you don’t have to make it a “Let’s sit down and have a serious talk” talk. Just give them the information the way you teach them about anything else that matters, like brushing their teeth or following through on their serve. Let it be information that they know and can use, and let that knowledge serve as a protective power.
[Some of this information was obtained from the following sites, which I recommend: darkness2light.org, cfchildren.org, and theparentreport.com.]