Keeping Your Children Safe from Sexual Abuse
Five resolutions for the New Year.
Posted Jan 02, 2019
As we enter a new year, we often think about how we can change our behavior. For many, that involves diet and exercise, but one thing that parents should also put on their list is thinking about sexual violence prevention. While the following may be things you are already doing, if you have not yet started or only partially done some of these things, it is a perfect time to start.
1. Use correct anatomical names for body parts. While this may sound simple, using correct anatomical names for the breasts, penis, and vagina is important for several reasons. First, it conveys to children that there is nothing different about the sexual organs than any other part of the body. Using cutsie names for only these body parts indirectly sends the message that the sexual organs are different and somehow it is wrong or shameful to talk about them. Second, it increases the ability of children to accurately convey information should there be any concern of abuse. If non-anatomical names are used then it is more difficult for parents and authorities to understand exactly what the child is referring to and could hinder reporting or detection.
2. Start discussions of consent. While we may think of consent as something that is only relevant to sexual relationships, discussions of consent should start early. Kids should know that they are in control of who touches them and how. Thus, you should not force your children to give hugs or kisses to friends and relatives if they are not comfortable doing so – they can give high fives instead. Teaching your child that it is OK for them to dictate who touches them gives them the confidence and permission to say “no” should an adult or another child touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Are you children grow older, discussions of consent should include how to respect partners’ wishes and how to ask for consent in romantic relationships.
3. Know the facts. You can educate yourself about the true nature of sexual abuse. While many of us are taught to fear the man in the white van, the reality is that the vast majority (93 percent) of those who abuse children are known to them such as family, friends, and members of the community. Only 7 percent of children are abused by a stranger. Further, 10 percent of those who abuse children are women, and about a third of abusers are under the age of 18. Knowing these facts is important because it affects our prevention strategies. For instance, we are now cautious about letting our children play alone in parks or walk to school unaccompanied as we fear that they could get snatched. However, we are less cautious about leaving them with babysitters, friends, and family, when in fact these are the individuals that may pose the most risk.
4. Educate yourself about your kids’ technology. As our kids are spending increasing time online, the way in which perpetrators contact them has also changed. While the latest research suggests that the number of kids contacted online is decreasing, a significant number of minors still report being contacted online by an adult. Kids are most often contacted in chat rooms, in social media platforms and in multiplayer games with chat features. Talk to your kids about the dangers online and that they should never share any identifying information including photo sharing with strangers online. Games designed for children such as Roblox allow parents to turn off the chat feature. For older children and teens, make sure that you have a smart phone and social media agreement so that you are both on the same page with family rules and that you know your children’s passwords, so you can access their online communications if necessary. Also, internet-enabled devices should not be allowed in bedrooms at night. Not only do they disturb much-needed sleep, but research has shown that most contact between adults and teens online happens after parents are in bed – thus, it's best to eliminate this as an option.
5. Teach your children to think critically about matters pertaining to sexual violence. While we would like to think that we will always be around to protect our kids – the reality is that they spend large parts of their time away from us. Thus, we have to teach them to make good decisions. For example, with younger children, you can roleplay hypothetical situations that may occur – like if someone shows them a picture that makes them feel uncomfortable, what would they do. Reinforce their critical thinking and guide them in the correct direction if they are off base. For older children and teenagers, you can use media happenings and things that they see on TV to foster discussions. Ask them their thoughts, how they would have handled the situation, and if they are off base – use Socratic questioning to help them come up with a better solution. These types of activities should be practiced regularly in informal situations, like when you are driving to activities, talking a walk or having dinner.
While we will never be able to keep our children 100 percent safe, knowing the facts and teaching our children to identify situations that make them feel uncomfortable and how to handle them and to reach out to adults for help may decrease the likelihood they will be abused.
For more information, see: Jeglic, E.J., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting you child from sexual abuse: What you need to know to keep your kids safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Protecting-Your-Child-Sexual-Abuse/dp/1510728686