I have had many opportunities to talk with kids of all different ages about sexual abuse prevention. I have had discussions with 4-, 5- and 6-year-old children about the harsh realities that there are adults who we know and should be able to trust who will touch the sexual parts of children or get children to touch the sexual parts of an adult. I have also had a lot of similar conversations with kids who are several years older. And I have spoken many, many times to teenagers about teens who will sexually abuse and/or take advantage of other teens.
But I suppose what stands out most for me when I think about all my talks on sexual abuse was the very first time I was asked to speak to a class of second graders about one of their classmates who consistently would engage the other students in genital touching. I had never had to speak to young kids about other young kids who might try to do something sexual in hurtful or unwanted ways.
That was many years ago and what was then an oddity is now common practice. Little did I realize then that this was just the start of what would eventually become a part of all my talks with young children. It has also become a part of my talks with parents as well. As part of our role of being an approachable parent on all matters sexual for our children, we must be able to educate our kids on how to protect themselves from the sexually abusive and intrusive behavior of other children.
How Prevalent Is Sexual Abuse and Sexual Intrusiveness Committed by Children?
A little more than a third of all sexual abuse of children that comes to the attention of police is committed by another minor; typically a teenager between the ages of 13 and 17. Moreover, about 16 percent of juvenile sex offenders are under the age of 12. Again, these are cases that are known by law enforcement. One can understand that the younger the age of the "perpetrator" the less chance there is that police would be involved. Not surprisingly, it is not hard to understand that a proportion of abusive sexual behavior committed by children less than 12 years of age is never brought to the attention of law enforcement. Very likely even a majority.
In addition, many professionals are disinclined to refer to sexual behavior done by young kids under 12 that is intrusive towards others as "abusive." Consequently, they are referred to as children "with sexual behavior problems." They are reluctant to categorize aggressive and even hurtful sexual behaviors that are committed by 7-, 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old kids as behaviors that occur due to the same pathologies that can be manifest in adults or even older adolescents. That is, young kids that display intrusive sexual behaviors do so for different reasons than those much older do and as such need to be dealt with much differently. Nevertheless, whether or not we call certain intrusive sexual behaviors committed by young children abusive or not, the fact remains that there are a percentage of kids younger than adolescent age that can and do inflict sexual harm on other kids.
I have spoken in other posts about the emergence of the young sexual bully in schools all across America today. I have discussed how I was deluged with reports of young children displaying hurtful and intrusive sexual behavior towards others when I was the Director of Health for the New York Public Schools. There were thousands of occurrences of these sexual behaviors in New York's schools each year when I was there and they are a part of their records. I can only imagine how extensive the problem is in kid's homes and other areas far more private than a public school building.
Behaviors That Are Considered Sexually Abusive or Intrusive
Sexually abusive behaviors range from rape, sodomy and sexual assault with an object, to fondling, to non-forcible sexual offenses. Sexually intrusive behaviors are those engaged in by younger children that do not rise to the level of law enforcement involvement and include sexual behaviors that are developmentally inappropriate or aggressive in nature.
Sexually intrusive behaviors are sexual behaviors that occur between young children at a high frequency; or occur with intimidation, coercion, or force; or are associated with a considerable level of emotional distress; or occur in secret; or occur between children with significant differences in age or developmental abilities.
Children will frequently express a certain amount of sexual curiosity and exploration with other children of the same age, size, status, and power. When they do this it is usually done with a sense of genuine curiosity and wonderment, coupled with a considerable level of embarrassment when caught. However, when one child is older or more powerful, or the sexual behavior is done excessively or it is not stopped after an adult has intervened and set boundaries, or if one child experiences fear, force, stress or anxiety, or the sexual behavior is of an adult nature (i.e. oral sex, attempted penetration, etc.), then the behavior should raise an immediate concern.
What You Need to Tell Your Child
My guess is that there are many parents that do not even think about discussing with their children that other children or teens could be sexually abusive or sexually intrusive towards them. It can be difficult enough trying to explain to your 8-year-old that there are some adults who they might know or even love who could try to do things to them that are hurtful. Having to explain to them that another kid might try and do this and that kid might even be one's friend only complicates this effort.
But just as parents came to realize the importance of talking with their kids about how someone they know is more likely to try to sexually harm them than someone who is a stranger, so too must parents spend time explaining to their children that other kids, even those they might consider friends, can also sometimes try to do the same.
Just like I had to explain to that class of second graders many years ago that sometimes another kid, even one we know well, can at times do things that make us feel really uncomfortable. That for whatever reason, sometimes another kid wants to touch us or have us touch them in ways that we feel we just shouldn't do. How sometimes that means touching one's private parts; the penis, vagina, breasts, or buttocks. And should that ever occur, who we need to tell and how we need to prevent it from occurring again.
So whether your child is 4 years of age or older, you need to start a dialogue that addresses several key points. They are:
• Clearly identify and label male/female private parts. Explain how private parts are different from public parts of the body and why.
• Being curious about the private parts of someone else is normal. Whenever you have questions about private parts always come and speak to mom/dad.
• Just like there are rules for behaving in school, crossing the street, etc. there are rules that pertain to our bodies. One set of rules pertains to our private parts. We never allow anyone to touch our private parts and we never touch another's private parts. Make sure to detail exceptions, e.g., parents teaching their child how to bathe, a doctor examining a child's private parts, accidental touch of someone's private parts as when wrestling and playing around, etc.
• We don't show our private parts to anyone else and they should not show you theirs. Again, there are exceptions, like disrobing in a locker room, that you can highlight.
• We need to explain to our child that the above two examples include kids they know well or don't know well at all, whether they are the same age or older. Other kids should not touch your private parts and you should not touch theirs.
• Introduce the "Uh Oh" feeling. The "Uh Oh" feeling is something we get when something is happening to us that make us feel uncomfortable. Adults can be the cause of an "Uh Oh" feeling and so can another child.
• Should an adult or another child try to touch your private parts or get you to touch theirs, always say "No," try to leave where you are or tell an adult near you (teacher, parent), and always tell mom/dad.
• If an adult or another child does touch or tries to touch your private parts or gets you to touch theirs it is never your fault.
• Plan on having these conversations periodically throughout the year and every year with your child.
• Use teachable moments to address as many of these issues with your child as you can.
• Periodically create hypothetical scenarios with your child where she or he has to brainstorm solutions for managing an "Uh Oh" feeling or a possible touching situation.
The sexual abuse of children is a significant and disturbing reality in our society. It has been estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused in some manner prior to reaching adulthood. We now understand that a considerable number of kids who are abused are abused by other children or teenagers. Sadly, every year, thousands of kids if not more will have to endure the sexually abusive or sexually intrusive behavior of another child. It is crucial that parents understand this problem and teach their children how to avoid any hurtful and unwelcome sexual behavior.