When we consider the high numbers of children that are sexually abused it is disappointing how little is out there to support parents in prevention efforts. Although Erin’s Law has brought Sexual Abuse Prevention to many children in the school setting, parents are still often at a loss as to how to talk to their children about this difficult topic.
As a therapist who has specialized in treating child sexual abuse for twenty years, I have crossed paths with thousands of children and families that have been involved with Child Welfare and passed through our local children’s advocacy center. They have been tremendous teachers. I am so grateful that they have been willing and able to share their stories and help me gain expertise in understanding the context in which sexual abuse occurs. Their experiences have helped me to develop practical prevention strategies for caregivers, and professionals who work with children.
I considered what I thought parents need to know, and then came up with some very specific messages I thought their children needed to hear. In working with countless survivors over the years I have met very few that understood what sexual abuse was and that it happens to a lot of kids. Even fewer understood why it is hard for children to tell, and rarely had they had a caregiver let them know what to do if sexual abuse ever occurred.
Since child sexual abuse is often an overwhelming topic for parents, I have tried to make the information more tolerable by simplifying it into 10 Tips for Sexual Abuse Prevention. I taught this information for many years throughout Colorado, and it is now available in a podcast, with links below. This information will help caregivers to feel empowered. They will learn specific strategies for how to talk with children about this difficult topic and how to respond if sexual abuse is suspected. These tips identify misinformation caregivers have that put children at greater risk for sexual abuse trauma. In completing the class parents will feel confident giving children specific messages to make them a "least likely" victim
I hope you will take the time to listen to the podcast and pass along this resource to others. In the meantime, here is a quick review of what I consider to be the 10 most important tips in sexual abuse prevention.
Tip #1 Understand Why Kids Need to Know About Sexual Abuse
The pervasiveness of child sexual abuse really demands that prevention happens in every home. Children need to know that sexual abuse exists and that it happens to many children. Often parents avoid telling their children about sexual abuse for fear of scaring them or giving them information about sex when they are too young. I give parents this script to help guide as they broach the topic: “I want you to know that sometimes grown-ups or other kids, even people we know, might want to look at, or touch, your private parts. They might want you to play games with, or show you pictures of private parts or even make you look at or ask you to touch theirs. If this ever happens, they are trying to break a rule and I want you to tell me about it so I can help you”. This simple information can be given to a child at any age, and I encourage parents to talk to their children like this from a very young age.
Tip #2 Caregivers Should Know Who Sexually Offends
Unfortunately, I have found that many caregivers rely on sex offender registries and “stranger danger” and thus inadvertently misinform their children. Over 90% of the time the child has a relationship with the offender. Sexual abuse is not likely to happen in a “grab and go” situation but is more likely to happen in the context of a relationship that the parent is aware of. Both children and caregivers need to know that sexual abuse by a stranger is incredibly rare and in most cases of abuse there is a relationship with the perpetrator. The element of betrayal in a sexually abusive relationship is one of the things that makes sexual abuse so traumatizing and difficult to report.
Tip #3 Watch out for Grooming Behaviors.
There have been too many instances where I have heard a parent say….“But he is such a nice guy, I can’t believe he could do something like that!” “But she always wants to be with her uncle, she LOVES him!”. Sexual offenders work to ensure that if a child does disclose abuse it will be difficult to believe them. It is in their best interest to be perceived as a “nice guy” or a “trusted person” and so they work to manipulate and charm the child, the parents, and the entire community. Cases like that of Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky have shown us how many people are willing to rally and protect these master manipulators.
Tip #4 Secrets Are Not Safe
In order to truly understand sexual abuse trauma, one needs to understand why children feel that they cannot tell. Child sexual abuse victims rarely tell about the abuse right away, and this makes for a much more substantial negative impact. I have asked so many children “what made it hard to tell”. The most common responses – “I didn’t want my mom to cry”, “I didn’t want my dad to get in trouble for hurting him”, “I was embarrassed”, “I didn’t want to get into trouble”. In order to truly understand the trauma of child sexual abuse one must understand the secrecy in which it thrives. A very important message for caregivers to give their children is “Secrets are not safe!” Children should know the difference between secrets, surprises, and private things.
Tip #5 Who's the Boss Of This Body
One of the best ways that caregivers can educate their child to prevent sexual abuse is to teach them, “You are the Boss Of Your Body”. I wrote a children’s book “Who’s the Boss of this Body”, so that caregivers would have a useful tool to help start this this conversation. Children need to know that no one has the right to look at or touch their private parts, and no one has the right to make a child look at or touch their private parts. I found that a lot of the prevention books out there were sometimes kind of creepy, and sometimes put too much blame on the child. I wanted to make a book that was light and funny and easy for caregivers to read.
Tip #6 Make Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Part of Your Everyday Parenting
Many caregivers confuse a conversation about sexual abuse with “the sex talk”. All too often when I ask a parent what they have done for sexual abuse prevention education thus far a parent will answer “Well I think they teach the kids about that in middle school”. Talking about sex and talking about sexual abuse are completely different. Sexual abuse prevention is not a one-time awkward conversation, but more a style of parenting that empowers children to know their boundaries and not keep secrets.
Tip #7 Know the Signs of Child Sexual Abuse
Although there are no definitive signs of sexual abuse, there are certainly red flags that parents should look out for. Children often communicate through behaviors and there are some that may indicate sexual abuse. Parents should familiarize themselves with emotional. behavioral, physical, and sexual signs of sexual abuse.
Tip #8 Know How to Respond
All too often a child is faced with a “dead end disclosure”. This means that even though the child tells, the report goes no further. Sometimes well-meaning caregivers think that this is the best way to protect their child -- “They have been through too much, I didn’t want to make them go through even more”. But I have found that a caregiver's response to disclosures of sexual abuse is critical to a child's recovery. A sexual offender has one simple rule they want followed – “Don’t report me to the police”. Very often the trauma continues as the child remains under the power of the perpetrator and follows their rule. If the child tells and then the caregiver also joins the offender’s team by following their rule of silence, the child is even further traumatized.
Tip #9 Know the Risk and Protective Factors
While no child is immune from sexual abuse there are some risk factors that may increase their likelihood of abuse. Understanding what protective factors can be put into place will ultimately reduce the risk of being traumatized by abuse. Caregivers who seek to be informed about sexual abuse and are willing to believe the possibility that abuse could happen to their child, actually reduce the risk of victimization. Homes that encourage secrecy, where there may be domestic violence, substance abuse, or high conflict divorce, put children at greater risk. Offenders have been known to say they seek out children who are good at keeping secrets. Additionally, children who identify as LGBT, preschool children, and children with disabilities are at greater risk for sexual abuse.
Tip #10 Raising Resilient Children
Child sexual abuse victims who continue to be stuck in their trauma are at risk for re-victimization. All children who have experienced sexual abuse should be assessed to see if they need mental health treatment, and if so, they should attend an evidence-based trauma focused therapy. Caregivers need professional support so that they are not only preventing further abuse, but they are also preventing post traumatic stress.
For more information, please see the following resources:
The podcast can be found by searching for “10 Tips for Sexual Abuse Prevention” or by using the following links: