Protect your kids
I was asked to write a blog about how parents can talk about child sex abuse (CSA) with their kids.
Here it is, with two disclaimers. One is that, as far as I know, there is no evidence that any one educational approach is better than another. Everything having to do with CSA prevention is very hard to study, as children rarely disclose their abuse, so it takes decades to do good, longitudinal research. My other disclaimer is that it is up to adults to protect children from CSA. There is a fine line between “empowering” kids with information about safety and burdening them with the responsibility of keeping themselves safe.
No more than 10% of sex offenders will spend a day behind bars, leaving well over 90% of them free, unregistered, passing background checks and clamoring to interact with children. The odds of your child interacting with a sex offender are, statistically, about 100%. We can’t blame kids for being victimized in such a dangerous world. We must work to make this world less dangerous for them. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with bestowing every possible protection on the children in our lives.
What can you do to ensure your children don’t become a statistic?
It’s a process, not a talk.
If you want your kids to be able to recognize sexually abusive behavior, they need an understanding that sexuality is normal. Teach your kids the correct names for their genitalia. Words are powerful. When we tell kids there are some parts of their body with names that cannot be uttered, so they need nicknames, we’re not sending them a healthy message. By letting kids know that no part of their body is “bad”, and that sexuality is something that can be talked about, you’re setting the stage for more discussions on sexual topics as they get older. I’ve also heard horror stories from professionals working with sexually abused children about how children who didn’t know the proper names for their genitals were unable to describe their abuse to their caretakers, and therefore couldn’t be helped. If you take this approach, does it mean there’s now a chance that your three-year-old is going to say “penis” at Sunday dinner? Absolutely. But it’s a small price to pay.
It’s really hard to describe what sexual abuse is if you don’t know what it is yourself. One phrase to avoid at all costs when describing sexual abuse is “…and they hurt you”. Sex offenders become absolutely adept at abusing children without the children disclosing their abuse. As such, they manage to de-sensitize children to increasingly inappropriate and sexual touching. This is much easier if the touching isn’t physically painful. It is often a source of tremendous guilt for children if there was a physically pleasant element to the abuse- a child’s nerve endings work as well as an adult’s, and physical sensations experience have absolutely no bearing on how harmful or damaging the abuse is. Also understand that it is equally damaging, and equally abusive, for an adult to make the child touch them sexually. So now your message is something like “it’s not OK for someone to touch you on certain parts of your body, and it’s not OK for someone to ask you to touch them on certain parts of their body”. Progress. But wouldn’t it be great if you could instill in your children the confidence to let you know if they feel anyone is pushing on their boundaries in a way they don’t like? It can be done- you can instill in your house a rule that no one ever touches anyone in a way they don’t like. This is a great rule, but for it to work, you need to support your child. If they don’t want to hug and kiss all their extended family after a holiday party, you need to support them in that. If siblings are teasing each other, and that teasing involves touching- even non-sexual touching that seems totally harmless to you- you need to support them. And I can’t wrap my mind around how you can support this if you practice corporal punishment in your house. Telling a grade-schooler “don’t let anyone touch you in a way you don’t like, unless it’s a spanking…no one is allowed to touch part of your body covered by a bathing suit, unless it’s a spanking… your body is a good thing that belongs to you- but your family is entitled to hurt it if you’re bad… if someone does abuse you, it doesn’t mean you’re bad-unless it’s your family, and we’re spanking you because you’re bad- oh, and by the way, if someone does touch you in a bad way, it’ll probably be someone in your family”. This makes my head hurt, and I’m not a child!
Use teaching moments.
There are always stories about CSA in the headlines. Use them as teaching moments with your kids. Use them to reiterate that this is common, it is wrong, it’s OK to tell if someone does that. Remind them that the person doing it will most likely be someone they like and someone their parents trust, but that still doesn’t make it OK, and that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t tell.
NEVER UTTER THIS SENTENCE
“If someone did that to my kid, I’d kill them”. Odds are excellent that if someone does this to a child, they have become a big part of the child’s life. The child won’t want them dead, and may feel bad about having them disappear from their life. If you show a child that you cannot be trusted with a disclosure, you probably won’t get one. That, in turn, sentences your child to years of carrying this burden alone and buys a sex offender more time and more prey. A better thing to say is “It’s so sad to hear about this. It’s a big problem. If this ever happens to you, it’s OK to tell me. I’ll keep you safe”. Another sentence to avoid is anything that goes like “someone is ruined after that happens… their life is over…they’re better off dead”. Again, if your child is being abused and they hear that, they now have no incentive to tell you, and no hope of living a good life.
Pay attention to change
As parent, you pay attention to the people your child has relationships with. If you see one person in your child’s life pushing for more access to your child, particularly more time alone with them, pay attention, and push back. If your child says they don’t like spending time with a particular person, ask why. Does the answer make sense? Does your child seem nervous, apprehensive, etc, as they answer?
As soon as kids start to speak, they say things we wish they wouldn’t. As children catch us doing things- even very innocent things- we wish they hadn’t, it becomes tempting to tell them not to tell anyone, to make whatever they heard or saw a secret. Keeping secrets is a skill that gets better with practice. As part of the “grooming process”, sex offenders test how well a child can keep a secret. At first, it’s likely to be a very innocuous one, and then the secrets become worse and worse until the actual sexual abuse is happening. A child with no skill at keeping secrets is likely to be less attractive prey for a sex offender.
It is a very dangerous world out there for kids. As adults, we need to fix that. If you find out that your child was sexually abused, you need to find professional services for your child, and you also need to forgive yourself. Research shows that children who disclose their abuse during childhood, receive therapy as children, and are supported by their families have much better outcomes than sexually abused children who hide this secret into adulthood and/or lose their family ties because of it. And all the dialogues you have with your child, all the rules you set and norms you establish that will help protect your child from abuse will help you be the parent your child needs should they get abused. There is nothing easy about this topic, but what in life is easy? Parents need to approach this topic the way they approach every other difficult topic in life- with intelligence, honesty and optimism.