Perhaps the chilling statistics of child sexual abuse can bring more awareness of this pervasive problem to caring adults: one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. But children can’t prevent abuse from happening.
“Child sexual abuse prevention is an adult’s job,” says Jeanne Meyer, who helps to educate adults about the perils of abuse. In her role as a facilitator for the national project Darkness to Light, her mission is to protect society’s most innocent victims. “We adults need to be educated and empowered . . . Children are our future. For them to be successful, they need to be kept safe during their childhoods.”
The intention to protect our children should be as natural as teaching them how to call 9-1-1, says Robin Sax, a sex crimes district attorney. “We now know that the only way to protect children is for parents to view it as a priority—not once the deed is done, but as a preventive measure,” says Sax, the author of Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe (Prometheus Books, 2009).
A molester can be anyone: a priest, teacher, coach, neighbor, friend, or family member. “While it may be advisable to warn children of ‘stranger danger,’ I often remind parents that if they want to worry, they should worry about the people they know, as well as the ones they don’t,” Sax says. “To assume that we understand the heart and intent of every person in our lives is to turn a blind eye to the statistics.”
In fact, family and friends pose the greatest risk of being child abusers. Between 30 and 40 percent of children are abused by people the family trusts, and about 60 percent of abusers try to form a trusting relationship with parents.
While it’s common for busy parents to depend on help from other adults, Meyer says, they must remain vigilant—even with close family members and friends. If your child goes to the movies or takes a trip with an adult, ask questions before and after to ascertain details of the outing, she says. One-on-one relationships are valuable for children, but parents must ensure their child is not being taken advantage of.
So what can you do to keep your children safe? Stay alert and stay connected to your kids to know what’s going in their lives. Here are some specific tips:
- Strive to raise assertive, confident children with a high sense of self-worth and self-esteem, says Sax. “Such children are less likely to be targeted because they are more likely to say ‘no’ to a predator and more likely to report the incident,” she says.
- Check the state’s sex-offender registry. In New Jersey, the state police Internet registry database can be found at: state.nj.us/njsp/info/reg_sexoffend.html.
“As a parent, I suggest that you check whether any sex offenders reside near your home, school, grandparents’ homes, and other locations where your kids frequently hang out,” Sax says. “Be sure to share that information with co-parents, babysitters, nannies, grandparents, caretakers, and anyone else responsible for supervising and caring for your children.”
- Beware of access and privacy. Sexually abusive acts do not occur in specific places, like back alleys, but in locations where two elements exist—access and privacy, Sax says. Predators seek opportunities to be with children—at afterschool tutoring, giving rides home, or paying a teen to do yard work, for instance. “Parents should ask themselves, ‘Why is this person willing—or even wanting—to spend so much time with my child?’” Sax says.
- Trust your intuition. Rationalizing a sexual-abuse situation is common—and dangerous. “Our minds often don’t want to go ‘there,’ to the possibility that this person is an abuser,” Meyer says. “We need to recognize and to accept what we feel and see.”
People often don’t report a highly trusted and visible individual for fear of ruining his reputation. However, Meyer says, “I would rather inconvenience the life of one adult than devastate the life of a child.”
- Talk about it. There’s no magic age to begin safety discussions with your children to help prevent sexual abuse, says Sax. And depending on their ages, it can be helpful to talk to your children together about sexual abuse.
“Siblings can then hold each other accountable, and help to keep one another safe,” says Meyer. “They can warn, ‘Remember what mom told us?’ Children can place expectations on one another.”
- Discuss with your children that their body is their own, and that nobody can touch them without their permission, Sax says. Emphasize that “no” means “no,” and anybody who refuses to respect that should be considered dangerous and reported to the police. Also talk about alerting a grown-up before answering the door in your home; knowing whom to approach if lost (such as another mom); and learning what to scream if someone attempts an abduction (“You are not my Dad! Help!”).
- Before a trip, talk about meeting places if you get separated, whom to call for help, and what kids should do if they get lost, Sax says. Begin teaching key telephone numbers to children 5 and younger, for mom and dad’s cell, the home phone, grandparents, and caregivers.
- Keep the lines of communication open. “We need to let our children know that they can come to us any time, without fear or embarrassment,” Sax says. “If they have been touched inappropriately, they should know that it is never their fault.”
After the Fact
When a child runs a high fever or breaks a bone, most parents remain relatively calm. Why? Because they know where to take their child to the doctor and have mentally prepared themselves for the bumps and bruises of childhood. Reacting to child sexual abuse must be the same, Meyer says. “As hard as it may be, do not react to what your child is telling you. When you begin to show fear or anger, your child may shut down.”
Be aware that few reported incidents of sexual abuse are false. Listen to your child. Trust your child. Listen to your own instincts and teach your child about listening to her inner self as well. If your child begins to act outside his normal realm of behavior, pay attention and ask questions.
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Kim Seidel is a wife, mother of two daughters, and an award-winning writer on parenting issues.