Okay, moms. Steel yourself. Today, I’m writing about a very difficult subject: How to protect your children from sexual abuse. Although it is hard even to think about, burying our heads in the sand is not a legitimate option.
Child sexual abuse is more common than most people realize. According to statistics, 1 in 10 children will be victimized before his or her 18th birthday. Even more shocking? Those numbers actually understate the problem. Experts estimate that between 65 percent and 88 percent of child sexual abuse cases are never reported.
But there is good news! Between 1992 and 2010, identified incidents of child sexual abuse declined by more than 60 percent. Experts attribute the decline to two things: (1) adults being more educated and aware of the problem and (2) children being more willing to report. Both of these factors give me hope and tell me that, even though there are no guarantees in life, there is a lot that we, as parents, can do to protect our children and keep them safe.
Eliminate “Stranger Danger” from your vocabulary. Teaching children not to trust unfamiliar adults may do more harm than good. Not only does it ignore the fact that strangers can be helpful (I’m teaching my son to find “a mom with kids” if he ever gets lost), but also it creates a false sense of security. Ninety percent of child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by a person the victim knows, 60 percent are perpetrated by a person the victim’s family knows and trusts, and approximately one-third of cases are committed by persons under the age of 18. The better practice is to teach your children how to identify “tricky people“—i.e. grown-ups or teenagers who (1) ask children for help or (2) ask children to keep secrets from their parents. Children also should be taught not to do anything or go anywhere with ANY OLDER PERSON AT ALL without asking your permission first. As parents, we also have to be on guard. Because child sexual abuse often occurs after a long period of grooming, always be suspicious of authority figures who give gifts to your children or adults who think your child is special and request to spend time one-on-one.
Teach the proper words to describe genitals. Boys have penises. Girls have vaginas (and vulvas). These are words that children need to know and feel comfortable using. Children who know that genitals, while private, are not so private that they cannot talk about them, are more likely to report grooming behaviors or repel them altogether. Sure, your child’s comfort may lead to some interesting conversations in public places, but I would much rather endure a few awkward public exchanges than inadvertently foster a family culture of shame or secrecy.
Implement a strict “No Secrets” rule. Teach your children that there is a big difference between secrets and surprises. Surprises are things you keep quiet about temporarily and that, when shared, make another person happy. Secrets are things you keep quiet about forever and are kept to protect something that would make people unhappy. Secrets are not allowed under any circumstances. Let your “No Secrets” rule be known both in and out of the family, and speak up when it is broken. Children who communicate or demonstrate an unwillingness to keep secrets are unlikely to be targeted for grooming.
Think twice before putting your child’s name on clothing or backpacks. In Texas and other southern states, personalized clothing and accessories are a big deal. Experts recommend, however, that parents avoid placing children’s names on the outside of their personal belongings. Don’t despair! You still have options. You could use a monogram instead, or—if you’re just trying to comply with a school rule—put your child’s name on the section of the backpack that touches your child’s back. Even though only 10 percent of child sexual abuse cases involve strangers, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Above all else, instill confidence and self-worth in your children. Several years ago I asked one of my coworkers, who formerly served as the chief of a special victims unit, what would be her biggest piece of advice to parents. She said, to raise a confident child. Children who appear to be insecure, withdrawn, or isolated are most vulnerable to grooming. So build up your children and make sure they know their self-worth.
Do you have any other tips to share? How do you keep your children safe?