My husband, Peter, and I had the pleasure of taking our five-year-old grandson to a production of Shrek: the Musical on Friday night at West Orange High School in New Jersey. The entire show was great—performances and talent amazing; set designs, artistic and clever. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and our little guy was captivated from the beginning until near the end as the audience responded to the unraveling of Fiona's secret and he, smiling sweetly, turned to me and asked, “Don't they know that it's about true love?”
The three of us remained seated during most of the intermission, and Peter and I chuckled to each other that there were hormones bouncing off the walls of the auditorium. Our four daughters are grown now, so it’s been a long time since we were in a high school auditorium filled with teenagers, and yes, there were plenty of adults and young children there, but teens were definitely the largest population in the room.
I scanned the auditorium as intermission ended, dimming lights heralded in Act Two, and my psychological mind wandered into sobering statistics: 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused by the time they are 18 (US Centers for Disease Control) ; 44 percent of rape victims are under age 18. Victims of sexual assault are three times more likely to suffer from depression, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide (RAINN). That’s why, when I came across an article in which Jill Starishevsky outlined 10 reasons parents do not discuss child sexual abuse ( Safety Star Media, March 23, 2014) I knew that it should be today’s blog.
Jill Starishevsky has been a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City for the past 16 years. She's also a prevention specialist. Here are the reasons for parents not telling their children about sexual abuse that she has heard over and over, along with synopses of her responses:
1. Children are seldom victims of sexual abuse. If you read the statistics in the paragraph above you know that this is not true.
2. This kind of thing doesn't happen where we live. Wrong. It happens everywhere, knowing no socio-economic or racial boundaries, no matter what religion you practice, and it can sneak in when you least expect it.
3. We don't let our children go near strangers. 93 percent of all child sexual abuse occurs at the hands of someone known to the child and trusted by the parents. Parents who teach only stranger danger are doing a disservice to their child.
4. My child is not old enough for this discussion. Actually the appropriate age to begin the discussion about child sexual abuse prevention is when a child is three years old. “Did you know that the parts of your body covered by your bathing suit are private and are for no-one else to see or touch?” is a good way to start the conversation. Explain to the child that he or she should tell Mommy, Daddy, or a teacher if someone does touch her or him in those private parts. Include any necessary exceptions for potty training, hygiene, and doctors visits.
5. I don't want to scare my child. Actually, when handled properly, children find the message empowering and are not frightened at all. Parents don’t refrain from teaching traffic safety for fear that their child will be afraid to cross the street. Teaching body safety is just as important.
6. I would know if something happened to my child. Child sexual abuse is actually difficult to detect. There are often no visible signs, and the emotional and behavioral signs can be caused by a variety of triggers.
7. My child would tell me if something happened to him or her. Most children don’t immediately disclose. They are typically told by the perpetrator that this is their little secret, not to tell because no one will believe them, people will tell them that its their fault, and telling will cause great sadness in the family.
8. We never leave our children alone with adults. Children can also be sexually abused by other children. The same lessons that can help prevent children from being sexually abused by adults, can keep them safe from other children. It’s also important to teach them the proper words for their private parts and who they can talk to if anyone touches them in a way that feels uncomfortable.
9. I don't want to put thoughts in their head. There’s no data to indicate that a child who has been taught about prevention is more likely to fabricate that they’ve been sexually abused.
10. It's not going to happen to my child. Child sexual abuse is so pervasive that it could happen to any child. Jill writes that she can guarantee you that if one were to ask any parent whose child had been sexually abused if they ever thought their child would be sexually abused they would say no.
Jill Starishevsky feels so strongly about this issue that she has written a wonderful book to help parents talk to their young child about sexual abuse. The name of it is My Body Belongs to Me, and because this is Child Abuse Prevention Month it can be purchased for $10 rather than the usual $14.95. (www.MyBodyBelongstoMe.com )
My own sense is that some parents, particularly parents of little ones, are opposed to telling their children about child sexual abuse because they want to protect their children's innocence. I hope Jill's list makes it clear that not telling them leaves them more vulnerable and telling does more to protect not only their innocence, but also their safety. Telling is another area about parenting that's about true love.
* Please note that RAINN is the Rape and Incest National Network.You may get more information from them at www.rainn.org, and the National Sexual Assault Hotline is: 1-800-656-HOPE. Childhelp is the National Child Abuse Help Organization. You may learn more about them at www.Childhelp-usa.com The Childhelp Hotline is at 1 800 4 A Child
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month
* If you are familiar with any other books that help parents talk to their children about sexual abuse, please tell us in the comments section