Early in my career, I worked in an outpatient clinic providing evaluations and treatment for children who had been victims (or suspected victims) of sexual abuse. This was not an easy job as you can imagine – heart-wrenching in fact. But God gave me a real passion for these children whose lives had been turned upside down by the selfish, damaging acts of abuse at the hand of their perpetrator.
Sexual abuse is rampant in our country. Reports estimate that 1 in 4 girls will be a victim of sexual abuse in their life time and about 1 in 5 boys will suffer the same fate. While there are no guarantees, there are some things you can do right now to protect your child from sexual abuse.
1) Teach your child the real names of their genitalia. While it might be cute to hear your little one use the term “wee-wee,” our kids need to know the correct terminology for their anatomy. You don’t need a science text book to do this. Simply use the names during bath time for younger ones when instructing where they should wash next or to announce where you are washing. Kids may become thrilled to have this “grown-up” language at their disposal and may find it fun to talk about all the time. You can simply tell them that they are welcome to use that language as long as it is in the bathroom as it is better suited for that environment. In everyday conversations, I recommend #2 below.
2) Use the term “private part/s.” You want to use this to identify all of the parts on your child that are private. Using this term is appropriate in all social settings but more importantly, it highlights the very nature of those parts of the body: they are private. Explain what private means. You can tell your child that private parts can be seen by the following: Mom and Dad, a doctor (with Mom or Dad present), a care taker who needs to bathe or change the child (I suggest you take the extra step to have the care taker ask you for permission to do these things with the child present).
3) Teach your child about personal space. Make a swooping motion with your hands around your body. The area you covered is your personal space. Your children need to know that they are the owners of that space. They get to decide who comes in. People need to ask permission to enter and your child gets to grant or politely reject that request. Teaching your child this concept is so essential in preventing sexual abuse.
4) Say good bye to secrets. Sexual abuse feeds on secrecy. We need to cut off its lifeline by eliminated secrets – even fun, playful ones. Clearly explain to your children that no one should ever ask them to keep secrets from you. No one. Identify the difference between a surprise and a secret. Surprises are always fun for the one you are keeping in the dark. Surprises are always eventually revealed. Secrets are none of those things.
5) Open your eyes. Many of us think that sexual predators are lurking behind bushes outside the school playground. This type of perpetrator is much less common than you would think. The majority of childhood sexual abuse is perpetrated by an individual known (sometimes very well) by the child. In my practice, perpetrators were fathers, uncles, grandfathers, ski instructors, cousins, siblings, mothers, aunts, step-fathers – the list goes on. Pay attention to your gut and intuition about a person or a situation. Don’t worry what people will think of you if you don’t allow your child to attend that sleep over or that afternoon at Uncle John’s. You have a bigger concern at hand. Also keep in mind that children who are abused may not perceive the abuse as such. Most abuse is not violent or painful. Grooming is the process by which a perpetrator normalizes sexualized materials and behavior with a child – a process that can take months or years. This is why we need to educate our children and be watchful for even the smallest signs.
6) If you have been a victim, get help. This final point is important. I can’t tell you how many times children would come through my office who had a parent with an almost identical victim experience. These parents were often very proactive and supportive of counseling, believing their children’s reports and taking action right away. Maybe it was an unconscious attempt to repair the damage that was done to them – providing a different outcome to the same situation. Many, in fact, would say, “I wish my mom believed me and protected me the way I am protecting my daughter now.” If you have been the victim of childhood sexual abuse and you never received treatment, you can protect your child by getting treatment yourself. An underlying, subconscious need to “fix things” can cloud your judgment. Contact your state’s Infoline for information on services in your area.
If you suspect abuse, the best thing you can do for your child is to believe her and then get help right away. Studies have found that there is no better single predictor of a successful outcome to treatment than to have a child who is immediately believed by his or her parents. Remember, 96% of all sexual abuse allegations are true. And those are just the ones that are reported.