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How to Reduce the Risk of Your Child Experiencing Sexual Abuse

Dirty Feet

Recently, I read a blog-post on “how to prevent your child from being a sexual abuse victim.” I found the article thought-provoking and had some potentially good points. The author, a pediatrician, gave tips that parents could use to help minimize their child’s likelihood of sexual abuse. These tips were meant to be empowering. However, although well-intentioned, sometimes, terms like “prevention” can be misleading. As a result, this article is to provide a little more background, as well as some additional thoughts on this very sensitive topic.

Sexual abuse is defined as, “The use, persuasion or forcing of a child to engage in sexual acts or imitation of such acts.” Unfortunately, sexual abuse is not uncommon for either boys or girls. Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.

Children who have experienced sexual abuse have been found to suffer more than other children. Research from 2012 found that victims of child sexual abuse can suffer from range of mental disorders (anxiety, depression, eating disorders), drug use, suicide attempts, sexually transmitted infections, and risky sexual behavior. Without appropriate help, many children who have experienced abuse are at greater risk for mental health conditions, and life-long difficulties with their health and everyday functioning.

Before we talk about things that parents can do help their children reduce their risk for being a sexual abuse victim, there are a few important issues to get out of the way.

Important Issue Number 1: It Is Better to Talk about “Reducing Risk” for Abuse Rather than “Preventing Abuse”

Obviously, as parents, most people would like to prevent something like abuse from happening to their children at all costs. However, there is a problem with the word, “prevention.” As parents and as people, we cannot control the world around us. We cannot prevent every harmful thing that may happen to our children.

Parents of children who have been victimized often report that they supervise their children well, as well monitor them in numerous situations. Of course, they do, because this is a normal part of caring for children! However, there are times, that as parents, we must trust others to watch our children. To not trust these people would also hurt our children. For example, most children go to school, play dates and/or church activities. Children with friends visit one another’s homes, visit relatives, and have babysitters. Children participate in sports, activities, and clubs. These are times when sexual abuse can occur, but also times children need to be apart from parents for their own developmental readiness.

“Prevention,” implies that if parents (or the child) had only done things “correctly,” the sexual abuse would not have happened. That kind of mind-set further increases shame and guilt, which makes it harder for victims and their families to heal. The truth is, no matter how perfect you are as a parent, you cannot fully prevent the risk of your child being sexually abused. It is NEVER the fault of the victim, which in this case is the child.

So, for the purposes of this article, we are going to talk about risk factors, and some things that parents may wish to be aware of. This article is not, by any means implying, that by not doing these things, the parents or child are at fault. Because that is simply not true.

Important Point Number 2: All abuse is about power, and the misuse of power

Despite its name, sexual abuse is about the abuse of power. Although the act has sexual behaviors, abuse stems from the perpetrator’s need for control. Sex is only the tool used to gain power. It is very important that adults NEVER imply that the way a child acted, dressed, talked, or behaved caused the abuse. The victim is never to blame. Also, it is important to know that child sexual abuse happens to children from all backgrounds, of all incomes, religions and ethnicity.

So, What Can Parents Do To Reduce Risk of Child Sexual Abuse?

Family Talking

Boy is that a loaded question! Given the background that I just provided, you may feel like there is nothing that you can do. That is untrue. But, please know, abuse can still happen. And if it does, it is not your child’s fault or your fault. And you can all still move forward and live meaningful lives. Talking about sexual abuse with your child can be one of the hardest, yet most important things that parents can do.

Talk to your child in a matter of fact, and appropriate way about sex

Teach your child the appropriate name for body parts and create a culture of respect and safety around their body. Review this information repeatedly, at least every few months, especially while your child is younger. Sexual education should not be one, awkward conversation that you are happy to be over. Rather, it should be many conversations that are ongoing, and where your child is happy to ask questions.

As a parent and as a psychologist, I have often used a few books to help me with this task. Some of my favorites that are artfully and comfortably written include:

Teach Your Child About How to Have Healthy Physical and Sexual Boundaries

This conversation should be calm, clear, and matter of fact. You can explain that their bodies are their own. Parents can see them naked, because they need to be able to take care of them. However, people outside of the home should not see them naked, unless they are changing for swimming lessons, in the locker room, or in other exceptional circumstances. Parents can also explain how doctors can see children without their clothes because parents are in the room and the doctor is checking their body to keep them healthy.

Healthy Sexual Education Books Can Be Very Helpful in Teaching About Sexual Boundaries

Most good children’s sexuality books (including the two mentioned above) have 1-2 chapters on “okay touches, not okay touches.” These are VERY important chapters to review (and probably more often than the rest of the book). As a parent, when my children were young, we would read this chapter every few months or so. I found that these chapters spurred many helpful and interesting conversations that we normally wouldn’t have as a family. For example, my children would talk about children at school who struggled with sexual boundaries in the preschool classroom, or “bad” words that they heard outside of our home. It seemed that by just opening the door to this subject, several good conversations just spilled out. Similarly, in clinical practice, if children have had their sexual boundaries violated, it is very helpful to go back to the basics and review these concepts regularly.

Teach Them About When Touching is Not Okay

In the context of these conversations, it is helpful to clearly express to your child that no one (other than parents or doctors) should touch your child’s private parts, look at your child’s private parts, or ask them to reciprocate these gestures. It is important to remember that sexual abuse frequently begins with someone asking the victim to touch them or someone else. It can also begin with small touches, like suggestive touches that may not always be uncomfortable, but yet are inappropriate.

Teach Them About Situations That Are Unclear or Confusing

It is therefore very healthy to talk to them about situations that are unclear, such as what to do when an adult is overly “touchy,” but doesn’t touch their private parts. Or what to do when an adult makes sexual jokes but doesn’t touch them. Furthermore, you can explain how sometimes sexualized contact can feel good, which can be confusing, since it doesn’t really seem bad. Also, you can answer any other questions that your child may have. Finally, you can encourage them to “trust their gut,” and always ask or tell you when they have concerns.

Teach Your Child About Media Use and Sexuality

When my oldest son began junior high, I felt that he was ready for a more advanced sexual education book at home for us to discuss. I was so amazed and incredulous about how much emphasis the book placed on screen-use and sexuality. And then after my son progressed through junior high, I understood why. So much of our young peoples’ lives are on social media, texting, and screens. As a result, sexuality is a big part of that.

As a psychologist, I see more and more young children having accidental media exposure to pornography than ever before. This exposure can lead to a lot of confusion, fear, and misinformation if not handled properly.

Older children have more access to the internet, and less supervision at school. As parents, you should talk to your children about these issues, and occasionally review their texts and viewing history on devices. If their viewing history shows access to online pornography, you will need to have a loving, but matter of fact, conversation about it. You may say something like, “As your parent, and someone who cares about you, we need to talk about some of the risks of viewing this content.”

Unfortunately, some children will assume that pornography or online violent sexual activity is normal. You will need to ask about these beliefs and dispel them. Children need to know that these kinds of activities are not real and are often staged to make money. They are not typical of sexual behavior in a loving and safe relationship. Furthermore, research tells us that by watching these kinds of online activity, teens are more likely to engage in riskier sexual activity, as well as sexuality outside of loving and caring relationships.

Teach Them to Never Share or Request Sexual Pictures

As part of all children’s sexual safety, parents will need to teach them that it is never safe to share pictures of their private parts or sexual actions, and it is never ok to ask others for these pictures. In fact, it can even be illegal, and is almost always an unsafe practice. Carefully supervise the use of social media, like Snap Chat, which has high potential to share sexualized pictures because children and teens believe the posts “go away.”

Teach and Practice What to Do If Someone Is Violating Your Child’s Sexual Boundaries

This skill is often not covered in sexual education books, and so it will likely be up to you as a parent. Because abuse is about power, it can be hard for all victims to tell people “no,” or stand up for themselves, even confident kids. Perpetrators are often very skilled at establishing control in the relationship through false trust and a series of small violations. That way, when larger sexual boundaries of violations occur, the child often feels guilty or responsible, and does not stop it or report it.

So, as the parent, you can review with your child that it is ok to ask to leave, or to go home. If they have a phone, they can ask to go to the bathroom and call you. Teach them the words to use in situations where they are uncomfortable and unclear. Explain that no one should ever ask them to keep secrets about any behavior, but especially sexual ones. You could even give them a word that means they are unsure or that something is wrong, such as, “Mom, can I check-in with you about something?” Finally, role-play and practice. They may roll their eyes or protest but give it a good effort. It is much easier to use a skill when it counts if they have already practiced it!

Teach Them That They Are Not in Trouble and You Will Always, Always Be There For Them

Also, it will be important to tell children that no one should violate their sexual boundaries. Not a stranger, but also NOT someone they know, like a friend’s parent or sibling, a classroom assistant, a clergy member, or even another child. You can explain that these violations happen, and if they do, you are always there for your child, and that they will NEVER be in trouble if they ask you about such matters.

Keep Talking

It will be important to talk to your child about their sexual health and safety for as long as they are your child. The conversations will change, but these conversations should be a part of your lives. Our children need us to be there for them, not to parent perfectly, but to help them find ways to live their lives in the best way they can. If they know they can always approach you, and that you are there to help, those are some of the best things that you can do.

Find Help If Needed

If your child discloses that they have been abused, there is help available. You will need to be able to listen to them, validate them, and work with them to get them care. Oftentimes, your pediatrician, therapist, or psychologist can serve as a partner to see things through.

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