As parents we face a difficult task when teaching children to be aware of their surroundings and potentially dangerous situations. Try as you may, as a parent you are not always going to be nearby. The next best thing is to teach your children to be responsible for their own safety.
- More than Just “Do Not Talk to Strangers”
- Good and Bad Touching
- Signs of Sexual Abuse
- If Your Child Has Been Abused
More than Just “Do Not Talk to Strangers”
Unfortunately, trusted adults such as relatives, family friends or care providers often inflict sexual abuse, making the situation especially confusing for the child. Though parents want to preserve their children’s age-appropriate naiveté, they must try to balance this natural parental protective instinct with the need to warn their children about inappropriate touching.
One of the goals of parenting is to foster an environment in which the child can develop a sense of self and learn right from wrong. Telling the truth and respecting adults are two things most parents would be proud to instill in their children. Unfortunately, these two factors are at odds in situations of inappropriate touching. Children need to know that it is okay to say no to adults if those adults are doing things that make the child feel uncomfortable.
Start by counseling your children to trust their intuition if a situation feels a bit “off.” Though not talking to strangers is an important lesson, there are many things that a parent can teach as well, especially when it comes to inappropriate touching and sexual abuse.
It is important for children, even at an early age, to understand the difference between good secrets and bad secrets. The majority of sexual abuse involves some scenario in which a trusted adult shares a special secret with the child that typically results in an embarrassing or frightening consequence if revealed.
Explain to the child that good secrets have an ending, like when you arrive at some special destination or when a birthday present is finally opened. Bad secrets usually have no ending and a horrible consequence if that secret is ever told. An example would be if someone told a secret and said, “Do not ever tell anyone about this. It will be our special secret, but if you do tell, [a specific bad event] will happen.” Teach your children that this kind of secret is wrong, that it is never any fun like the good kind of secrets.
Good and Bad Touching
Children should know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching. A good way to convey this to children is to tell them that any touching is bad if it is in an area that a swimsuit would cover. It is just as important for a child to understand that it is not okay if an adult asks the child to touch them in these same areas. Impress upon your child that bad touching is unacceptable with anyone, even a trusted family friend or authority figure.
Your child needs to know that if he or she is ever touched in a way that is uncomfortable or feels wrong, he or she can confide in you and, as the parent, you are not someone from whom this special secret should be kept. It may help to explain that adults (including older siblings, relatives and family friends) who touch them this way have a problem and that they can change, but only if they get help. Also reassure your child that no matter what the person who touched them said, they will not be in trouble for revealing this secret.
If your child ever confesses that he or she has been touched, it is very important that you believe him or her. This type of confession is very emotional and no matter what age the child, you should appreciate the emotional significance such a confession has on the child. Let your child know that telling will not be grounds for punishment.
Often, the abuser will tell the child that if the secret is revealed, the abuser will be sent away for a long time, possibly forever. Reassure your child that people who exhibit this kind of behavior need help and by telling, the child can do a good thing in helping that person get the treatment he or she needs.
Inappropriate touching of a sexual nature can sometimes by perpetrated by a child’s peers, even if such experimentation seems a natural part of growing up. Remind your child that he or she has control over his or her own body. When children are in groups, as on a school bus or at a slumber party, peer pressure can lead to a group mentality in which an individual’s objections are not respected. This not only can be emotionally traumatic, but it may also be illegal.
When you hear stories from your child, or if the two of you see scenes on television or in the movies that may be sexual in nature, it is important to discuss what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior for a child. These stories or scenes can provide a parent with the opportunity to discuss a delicate subject, as communication is so important.
Signs of Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse has many forms. It can be so subtle that a child may not know what is happening, just that he or she is uncomfortable. It can be verbal, physical or emotional, like any other form of abuse. In addition to touching, sexual abuse can also include:
- Exposing a child to pornographic materials or adult sexual activity
- Taking pictures of the child or showing the child pictures that initially may not be construed as sexually explicit
- Having a child pose, undress or perform in a sexual fashion
- “Peeping” into bedrooms or bathrooms
There are signs that may indicate that an appropriate relationship may eventually become inappropriate. One such sign is if the child receives any inordinate amounts of attention or gifts from a mentor figure, such as a coach, teacher or other activity supervisors.
Other signs are more pronounced and may indicate abuse has already occurred, such as:
- Age-inappropriate sexual behavior, promiscuity or seductive behavior toward adults
- Change in personal hygiene habits, including excessive cleanliness or lack of cleanliness
- Change in appetite, including weight gain or loss
- Sleep disturbances, such as bedwetting or nightmare;
- Depression, anger or irritability
- Reluctance to go home or to other places
- Avoidance of certain people and places
- Inappropriate dress, such as tight or revealing clothing or wearing many layers of clothing regardless of weather
- Making sexual drawings or writing sexual stories
The physical signs of sexual abuse include:
- Venereal disease
- Trauma to the mouth or genitals
- Excessive masturbatory behavior
- Rectal bleeding
- Torn or blood-stained clothing
- Attempts to touch an adult’s, child’s or animal’s genitals
- Pain or discomfort in the genital area
If Your Child Has Been Abused
If you believe that your child has been inappropriately touched or abused, there are a few steps you can take:
- Remain calm and try to under-react. A child can easily interpret signs of anger or disgust as directed toward him or her. Reassure your child that he or she was not to blame and that there will be no punishment for telling.
- Always believe the child. In most circumstances, a child does not lie about sexual abuse as it is very painful and embarrassing to discuss.
- Listen to the child and answer any questions honestly.
- Give the child positive input such as, “It is not your fault” and “I am proud of you for telling.”
- Seek professional help immediately. Contact legal authorities and the department of human services. Find a counselor trained in sexual-abuse therapy. Your local sexual-assault crisis center or your employee-assistance program can refer you to counseling services.
- Arrange a medical exam. Not only is it important to make sure no long-term physical harm has been done, but it may be important for legal evidence.
It usually is necessary to contact local authorities in order to file a formal complaint against the person responsible. An especially tricky situation can arise if your child tells you a friend has confided that he or she is being abused. In this scenario, it is best to call a school administrator, who then can involve the appropriate authorities. Most school districts have a protocol in place to handle such reports, so calls of this nature can be made anonymously.
Above all, instilling in your child a sense of self-respect and the understating that their bodies are under their control is the best way to prevent abuse before it happens. Assuring your child that he or she can say no to an adult if he or she feels uncomfortable is the best defense. Maintaining open and loving communication with your child will alert you to any possible signs in the unfortunate event that your child has been abused.
- Prevent Child Abuse America: preventchildabuse.org
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: aacap.org