Whether you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse or you’re a parent who wants to do their best to protect their child from being abused, you may be wondering if sexual abuse is preventable.
The short answer is no, not really. BUT, you can be proactive and educate your children, and if/when an abusive situation arises, your child will know it’s wrong, know how to respond, and we can help lessen the negative effects immediately.
- Teach your children about their bodies. Use the correct names for body parts (i.e. vagina, penis, buttocks) just as you do for hands, fingers, arms, feet, etc. Tell them what they are for and how they work. Obviously, you want to be age appropriate and let the child lead the discussion somewhat. You are the best judge of what your child is ready for, but start young – like as soon as they are verbal or around age 3. You can also start when you are changing diapers by saying out loud that you are going to clean their buttocks, which will help them understand that some touch is appropriate by caregivers or doctors. (There are books that can help!)
- Teach to your kids about puberty and sex. This sounds difficult and may be uncomfortable, especially for those who were victimized as children, but these are healthy and normal things that need to be discussed – everyone goes through puberty and will eventually have sex. Carefully explain changes in their body that will be or are occurring and teach them what sex is. We do this around age 8 – their bodies will start changing soon, and unfortunately, many kids already know more than they should about sex at this age. Hearing it from their parents – a source they can trust – is the safest way to learn. Keeping the line of communication open for any questions is key. Parents must be willing to talk about these parts of life with their children. (If this is hard for you, maybe practice with a friend or professional first.) Again, there are books available – even from religious perspectives – that can aid you in teaching these important parts of life.
- Teach about appropriate and inappropriate touching. Some touching is good and some is bad. A general rule for kids to know is that no one should touch them where their bathing suit covers. Some families may add a little more. Kids need to know they are in charge of their bodies. They should never be forced by any adult or person older than them to hug, kiss, or sit on someone’s lap that they don’t want to. Let them know they can say “no, thank you” and offer an alternative such as a handshake, high-five, or fist bump. Kids need to know they have control over their personal space and bodies. They do not have to submit to someone just because the person is an adult or babysitter.
- Help kids know how to listen to their intuition and/or the Holy Ghost. We’ve all been around people who make us uncomfortable. How do you respond to those people? Let your kids decide how to respond. If they for any reason don’t want to be around a friend or relative, there may be a valid reason. Don’t force them! If something doesn’t feel right, your child needs to know they can honor that feeling inside them and leave the situation.
- Don’t keep secrets. An abuser’s favorite tool is secrets. Secret games, secret friends… the creepy stuff I’ve been reading in my research makes my stomach turn. Instead of secrets, we should share surprises with our kids. Surprises are good – surprise parties, surprise presents, etc. Secrets signal danger. Help your kids know that there are no secrets between parent and child (or between one parent and child). Tell them if someone tells them to keep something a secret, no matter what bribe, threat, or other lie they may use, they are to immediately tell their parents.
- Use “what if” scenarios to help kids know how to respond to a potentially dangerous situation. “What if . . .someone wants to take you to their house to show you newborn puppies?; someone wants you to play a secret game with them?; someone touches one of your private parts?; someone shows you their privates or a naked picture of someone else?; someone tells you they won’t like you anymore if you don’t do what they tell you?” By coming up with a plan before they need one – just like a fire escape route – they’ll know what to do if a situation arises.
- If something happens and makes your child uncomfortable or gives them a “funny” feeling, make sure she/he will tell you first. Along with the “what-if” scenarios, comes telling mom and dad. Parents, be ready to listen and not brush off what your child tells you as no big deal. If they’re concerned, it IS a big deal. Talk it out – discuss the situation (who, what, when, where, why, how), how did it make them feel, etc., and take appropriate action. Sometimes it may be serious like sexual abuse, other times it may be the child wasn’t sure. Tell your child she/he did the right thing by coming to you. Do not punish your child for brining something to your attention – give praise and love. Kids need to trust their instincts and know they can come to their parents for anything; the first time may be a test to see how you respond before they trust you with something more serious.
Some parents may fear that teaching their kids these things can heighten a child’s interest in sex or cause them to fabricate an abuse story. Neither of these are true. Just like we keep our kids safe by teaching them to look both ways before crossing the street, not to play with matches or touch a hot stove, or to buckle-up when you’re in the car, we also need to apply these safety measures to protect them from sexual abuse. Teaching with love and respect and honesty is the best thing you can do to prevent sexual abuse, or give them the tools to deal with it.
If your child does get abused, please remember IT IS NOT HIS/HER FAULT. Even if they were somewhere they should not have been. Even if they did something you told them not to and then the abuse occurred. Do not blame your child for something the pedophile/molester/abuser is responsible for. Abuse can happen anywhere…at school, on the bus, at church, at home, at a friend’s house, in a public bathroom, on a camp out with the scouts, at summer camps, or at sports practice and dance class. We do have resources such as the sex offender registry, but that only alerts us to KNOWN offenders – those who have been reported/caught. Abusers are more often family (dads, uncles, brothers, grandparents, moms, cousins, etc.) or people the child knows – less likely strangers. Anyone who has access to your child can be an abuser. No race, religion, social status, or gender is exempt – sexual abuse happens across all demographics.
Proper response is key. If your child is abused, respond immediately. Pray for help if you’re confronted with this situation. Tell your child it’s not his/her fault; you will help them; you’re not going to allow that person to hurt them anymore; you love him/her not matter what; you will protect them; they’re not in trouble because of the abuse. There’s a careful balance of talking about it too much or not enough. Take cues from your child and let the Spirit guide you. Keep communication open and watch for changes in behavior that may be harmful. Make sure they get adequate professional help. If you’ve been a victim, this may be extra difficult because you know how much the abuse has hurt you and don’t want your child to have the same experience. Try to relax and do your best. Remember to get your child help from a therapist, church leaders, and the police.