As a new parent, the prevalence of sexual abuse is completely frightening to me. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18 (and this may be an underestimation given that a staggering amount of sexual abuse is never reported).
While these statistics are nothing new to me, they have taken on a whole new meaning for me now that I’m a parent myself. And so, I write this article in hopes that my clinical knowledge as a child therapist will spread awareness to fellow parents and help remove the stigma associated with this important issue.
A common misconception is that sexual abuse somehow discriminates, but the sobering truth is that it can happen to any child regardless of your family composition and background. While no parent can totally prevent sexual abuse from occurring, there are a number of measures that we can all take to help safeguard our children.
10 Tips to Help Protect Your Child from Sexual Abuse
- Teach Accurate Names for Private Parts:
- Teaching your child accurate names for private parts promotes open communication and gives them a language to ask questions and express concerns about those body parts.
- Promote Body Ownership:
- Help your child understand that their body belongs to them. This means that they’re the boss of their own body, and they have the right to refuse any kind of unwanted touch. This may be a new concept because children are often taught to obey and not question grownups.
- Empower your child to say no when they don’t want to be touched (e.g., politely refusing a hug) and try to refrain from urging them to hug someone when they’d rather not. You can try suggesting a more comfortable touch like a high five.
- Teach Body Safety:
- Help your child understand the difference between the 3 types of touches: okay (or safe) touches, not okay (or unsafe) touches, and confusing touches.
- Teach your child to follow the Safety Steps if they receive a confusing or unsafe touch, are asked to give someone else a confusing or unsafe touch, or if someone hurts them or makes them feel uncomfortable in any way.
- The Safety Steps are: 1) say no, 2) get away, 3) tell a grownup. Encourage your child to keep telling until someone helps! It’s helpful to role play and practice these steps through behavior rehearsal.
- Avoid Focusing Exclusively on “Stranger Danger”:
- While it’s helpful to educate your child on the dangers of speaking with strangers, it’s important to keep in mind that most children are abused by a family member or someone else you know and trust (with only about 10% of perpetrators being complete strangers according to The U.S. Dept of Justice).
- So it’s important for your child to understand that they have a right to say no to any touch from anyone (including yourself)!
- Have a “No Secrets” Policy in Your Family:
- Teach the difference between a secret and a surprise. Help your child understand that nobody should ever ask a child to keep secrets from their parent(s). You can explain that grownups work together to keep kids safe and healthy and don’t keep secrets from one another.
- Maintain Open Lines of Communication:
- Empower your child to use words to assert needs and feelings. This is a great first step in building confidence and skills for maintaining body safety.
- Teach your child that it’s okay to come and talk to you about a problem.
- Body ownership and safety should be an ongoing discussion. Review often and keep in mind that children retain information best through active learning (e.g., reading books together, modeling, behavior rehearsal, and role playing).
- Promote Independence with Self-Care:
- Teach your children, as early as possible, to bathe, dress and use the toilet independently so they don’t have to rely on adult assistance.
- Limit One-on-One time With Other Adults:
- Keep in mind that children are most often sexually abused by someone you know and trust (with about 30% of cases being family members according to the The U.S. Dept of Justice). Limiting the amount of time your child spends alone with another adult can dramatically reduce the risk of sexual abuse.
- Be aware of any adults who offer your child special gifts or want to take your child on special outings.
- If you feel uncomfortable leaving your child with someone, but you’re not sure why, always trust your instincts. Keep in mind that children are incredibly intuitive. So if your child seems uncomfortable or expresses reluctance to spend time with an adult, it’s important to trust their instincts as well!
- Provide Adequate Supervision When Playing with Other Children:
- According to the NCTSN, 23% of children are sexually abused by someone under the age of 18. Preverbal children are particularly vulnerable and should be closely monitored when in the company of older children.
- It’s natural for children of all ages to be curious about their bodies and to explore that curiosity through play, which is why adult supervision is important to ensure that this natural curiosity doesn’t get out of hand.
- It’s common for children to have sexual behavior problems if they themselves have been victims or have been exposed to sexual content or activities.
- Elicit Support of Others:
- Enlist anyone in the role of helping care for your child (family members, teachers, daycare providers, babysitters) to support your preventions efforts.
- Share your efforts so others can help reinforce messages with your child about their right to privacy, body ownership and safety.
- Insist on child abuse clearances, criminal background checks and professional references if your child attends daycare, summer camp, or another structured program where they might be alone with an adult.
How to Respond if Your Child Discloses Sexual Abuse:
- Try your best to stay calm and refrain from asking leading questions.
- Listen carefully and take the disclosure seriously. Too often, children are not believed, particularly if they name a family member or trusted friend as the perpetrator.
- Let your child know that you’re glad they told you, and you’ll do everything you can to help them feel safe again.
- Take immediate action. If you don’t intervene right away, the abuse could escalate and continue. Your child may also infer that you aren’t able to protect them, which may impact their attachment and sense of security with you.
- Action Steps:
- Take your child to a physician for a medical examination to ensure your child didn’t sustain any physical injuries or STI’s from the abuse.
- Report the abuse to your child protection agency and/or the police. If your county has a Child Advocacy Center (CAC), ask if your child can get a forensic interview by a specially trained forensic interviewer to prevent re-traumatization, which may occur when children are interviewed by professionals from multiple disciplines (child protection, law enforcement, medical).
- Consider whether or not your child and family would benefit from some therapeutic services to help initiate the healing process. Speak with your pediatrician or insurance company to request a referral for a professional who specializes in sexual trauma.
- If you have concerns that your child may have been abused, but they have not made a direct disclosure, you should speak with your child’s pediatrician. Your child’s doctor can assess your concerns, examine your child, and make any necessary referrals.
Resources for Parents/Caregivers: