A parent’s usual go-to phrase to arm their young children with tools to protect them from kidnapping, and other ‘stranger-danger’ is:
“Don’t talk to strangers.”
This warning catch-phrase doesn’t work because the overwhelming majority of abusers are parents, relatives, family friends, teachers, church members, clergy or other individuals known to the child.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway suggests the following strategies to keep children safe from sexual abuse:
* Take an active role in your children’s lives. Learn about their activities and people with whom they are involved.
* Watch for “grooming” behaviors in adults who spend time with your child. Warning signs may include frequently finding ways to be alone with your child, ignoring your child’s need for privacy or giving gifts or money.
* Ensure that your child’s organizations, groups and teams minimize one-on-one time between children and adults. Ask how staff and volunteers are screened and supervised.
* Make sure your children know that they can talk to you about anything that bothers or confuses them.
* Teach children accurate names of genitals and the difference between touches that are “OK” and “not OK.”
* Empower children to make decisions about their bodies by allowing them age-appropriate privacy and encouraging them to say “no” when they do not want to touch or be touched by others, even in non-sexual ways.
* Teach children to take care of their own bodies (e.g., bathing or bathroom).
* Educate children about the difference between good secrets and bad secrets.
* Monitor children’s use of technology, including cell phones, social networking sites and messaging.
* If your child tells you that he or she has been abused, stay calm, listen carefully and never blame the child. Thank your child for telling you. Report the abuse right away.
There must be open communication, first of all, between parents and their children, and parents must believe children from the very first time that they have a slightest clue of an impropriety. Parents, trust your gut-not what you think or believe about another person whom you may or may not know or trust. Simply because someone is an authority figure does not mean that they will always act in the best interest of your child as you would. It is your job to keep your child safe and advocate for your child, even in the presence of ‘vetted’ professionals.
In some instances, the idea of blind trust goes out the window, and trust no one until they have earned the privilege of being trusted with your child. You must ‘vet’ them yourself, and pay attention to your child’s feelings, body language and behavior in their presence. Children possess instincts, too. On the other hand, remain mindful that children are still developing and honing their abilities to recognize those who wish them harm, and people with good intentions. Above all, the ability to determine whom they should trust and whom they can trust is imperfect. That’s where parents step in.
“But, he/she is a nice, respectable and respectful person in the community”,
‘We have known him/her for years”,
‘He/she would never do something like that”,
“He/she has a wonderful family, and children”.
This is about the safety and protection of your child. If in doubt, ask yourself, ‘why would my child not be truthful with me?’ If you don’t believe your child, when something is said to you, think about that question. Moreover, if your child would tell you something that is disturbing to you, this is not a cause for punishment, but a call to action on your part. It is time to investigate further. Keep a close eye on your child-mood, disposition, sleep patterns, withdrawal, lethargy, and changes in eating habits/appetite.
Reassure your child of your unconditional love, and most importantly, assure your child that it is not their fault. Encourage and praise their openness in their attempt to tell you that someone has harmed them or threatened harm. Perhaps your child is unable to fully explain or process his/her emotions. But, whatever occurred, felt ‘wrong’ to them.
Your job is to help them articulate these thoughts and explain what it is they are trying to tell you. Remember, children are taught to obey adults, and they are taught to believe that whatever an adult says or does is always right, even though it feels wrong to them or hurts them in some way. Especially during earlier years of development, children mainly look to please their parents, teachers and other adults. So, understand that they don’t want you to be upset, because it upsets them, too. Don’t allow them to feel that they are tied to your happiness or are responsible for your relationships with others. Once again, abusers are 90% of the time people that children know, someone you know, and who are supposed to know that it is morally wrong to harm or abuse children in any way-your child, anyone’s child.
What if my child has been abused?
- Believe what your child says and listen calmly.
- Showing your distress may frighten them from telling you.
- Reassure your child it is not their fault and they are not in trouble.
- Tell them how proud you are they told you.
- Reassure them that you love them.
- Let them know that they are safe now and you will deal with it all and the abuse won’t happen again.
- Don’t push for details of the abuse if your child isn’t ready to tell you. Give them time.
- If the abuser is a close family member, family life will be seriously disrupted. Try to keep normal routines going if possible. Routines help children feel more secure.
- Even though you may feel very anxious about your child’s safety, try to maintain their usual activities.
- Think carefully about who to tell about your child’s abuse and when, and talk to your child about this. Other people knowing can make the situation more distressing. Explain the difference between privacy and secrecy to avoid your child feeling ashamed.
The aim is to keep your child safe from all harm and sexual abuse is not only a crime and a serious abuse of power, but it compromises the total health and wellness, including the psychological development of children. It disrupts lives with often life long impact. Keep your children safe!