Talking to Your Kids About Sexual Abuse
Any parents worst nightmare would be for their child to be sexually abused. Unfortunately, this is far too common, but the good news is there are many things parents can do to help minimize this risk by knowing the warning signs, talking to your kids early about prevention, and being savvy.
The Magnitude of the Problem
Did you know that...
- One in three girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused before age 18. (1)
- It is estimated that more than 300,000 children are sexually abused every year (2)
- In 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows and trust the person who sexually abuses them. (3)
- One if five adults report that they were sexually abused as children, an experience that increases vulnerability to depression, and other difficulties. (4)
- More than 85% of adults who were abused say they never reported the abuse to authorities. (5)
Adults have to learn to recognize when people are acting inappropriately around children and to speak up before a child is harmed. By educating yourself, you can become a powerful force in making the world a safer place for kids.
Who Sexually Abuses Children?
People who sexually abuse children are likely to be people we know, and could be people we care about. We can't tell who they are by the way they look. They typically aren't the strangers hanging around parks or the monsters that kidnap and kill children. More times than not they are fathers, mothers, step-parents, grandparents, and other family members (uncles, aunts, cousins). Or they're neighbors, babysitters, clergy, teachers, coaches, or anyone else who has close contact with our children.
My mother was a victim of child sexual abuse by both her father and older brother. I remember when I was a child, the few times we stayed at my grandfathers house, my mom would use a chair to lock the bedroom door and she would sleep with us to ensure we were safe. She didn't talk to me much about what happened to her, but I know she was extra careful that it didn't happen to me.
It's hard to believe that someone we know and trust may sexually abuse children. But because it's true, we all need to know what to look for and how to minimize the chance of it happening to our children or children we love.
What might sexual abuse look like?
Touching behaviors could be:
- Touching a child's genitals for sexual pleasure or other unnecessary purpose (penis, testicles, vulva, breasts, anus).
- Making a child touch someone else's genitals, or playing sexual games.
- Putting objects or body parts (like fingers, tongue or a penis) inside the vulva or vagina, in the mouth, or in the anus of a child for sexual pleasure or other unnecessary purpose.
Non-touching behaviors could include:
- Showing pornography to a child.
- Exposing a person's genitals to a child.
- Asking children to interact sexually with one another.
- Online enticement of a child for sexual purposes.
- Photographing a child in sexual poses.
- Exposing a child to adult sexual activity in person or through the use of technology.
- Watching a child undress or use the bathroom, often without the child's knowledge (known as voyeurism)
People who abuse kids often first build a relationship with the child. They may "test" the child to see how they react to different situations. For example, the adult may put their arm around a kid then move to hugging them or asking them to sit on their lap. They might also give a child special treatment like buying them things, giving them special privileges, offering alcohol or drugs or sharing sexual material, explaining that these are their (the adults' and the kid's) special secret.
Talk with your child about these "tricks" and how, because they've enjoyed the extra privileges or attention, it could make it harder for them to tell a safe adult. Tell them, "No matter what, other people aren't allowed to make you uncomfortable by talk ing with you or touching you in ways that feel uncomfortable or that you don't like. If that happens, tell a safe adult."
Talk with your child about how someone might discourage them from talking to an adult. Say, "Sometimes people will scare you by saying Mom or Dad won't believe you or you'll get in trouble or even that it's your fault. But, Mom and Dad will believe you and you won't get in trouble. Sometimes they'll even say they will hurt Mom or Dad or the family pet. We know how to handle these things. We'll be safe and you'll be safer if you tell a safe adult."
What to Watch For When Adults are with Children
- Makes others uncomfortable by ignoring social, emotional or physical boundaries or limits?
- Seems "too good to be true," for example, baby sits different children for free; takes children on special outings alone; buys children gifts or gives them money for no apparent reason?
- Watch for "grooming" behaviors in adults who spend time with your child. Warning signs may include frequently finding ways to be alone with your child, ignoring your child's need for privacy (e.g., in the bathroom or changing), or giving gifts or money for no particular occasion.
- Refuses to let a child set any of his or her own limits? Uses teasing or belittling language to keep a child from setting a limit?
- Insists on hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with or holding a child even when the child does not want this physical contact or attention?
- Frequently makes sexual references or tells sexual or suggestive jokes with children present?
- Exposes a child to adult sexual interactions without apparent concern?
Has secret interactions with teens or children (such as games, sharing drugs, alcohol, or sexual material) or spends excessive time emailing, test messaging or calling children or youth?
- Allows children or teens to consistently get away with inappropriate behaviors?
It is easy to second guess yourself and your intuition, but its better to be safe than sorry. Everyone needs to speak up. If you answered "yes" to some of these questions, talk to that person. Visit www.stopitnow.corg or call 1.888.PREVENT toll-free national Helpline.
Symptoms of Children with Possible Sexual Abuse
- Nightmares, sleep problems, bedwetting, extreme fears without an obvious explanation
- Unexplained pain, itching, redness, or bleeding in the genital area.
- Sudden or unexpected personality changes; seems withdrawn, angry, anxious, depressed, moody, clingy, "checked-out" or shows significant changes in eating habits
- Shows resistance to routine bathing, toileting or removing clothes even in appropriate situations
- Play, writing, drawings or dreams of sexual or frightening images
- An older child behaving like a younger child
- Refuses to talk about a secret he or she has with an adult or older child
- Uses new or adult words for body parts or sexual functions
- Engages in adult-like sexual activities with toys, objects or other children
- Receiving unexplained gifts, money, or privileges
Tips to Minimize Your Child's Risk
- When children are young, teach children the proper names of the genitals, just as you would teach names of all the body parts. This teaches that the genitals, while private, are not so private that you can't talk about them.
- Parents can teach young children about the privacy of body parts, and that no one has the right to touch their bodies if they don't want that to happen. Children should always ask permission to touch anyone else's body as well and to respect the right to privacy of others.
- Teach children early and often that there are no secrets between children and their parents, and that they should feel comfortable talking with both parents about anything -- good or bad, fun or sad, easy or difficult.
- Empower children to make decisions about their bodies by allowing them age-appropriate privacy and encouraging them to say "no" when they do not want to touch or be touched by others, even in nonsexual ways (like hugs and kisses from family).
- Educate children about the difference between good secrets (such as birthday surprises) and bad secrets (those that make the child feel unsafe or uncomfortable).
- Be aware of adults who offer children special gifts or toys, or adults who want to take your child on a "special outing" or to special events.
- Enroll your child in daycare and other programs that have a parent "open door" policy. Ask how staff is screened when they are hired. Monitor and participate in activities whenever possible.
- Ensure that organizations, groups, and teams that your children are involved with minimize one-on-one time between children and adults. Ask how staff and volunteers are screened and supervised.
- As children age, create an environment at home in which sexual topics can be discussed comfortably. Use news items and publicized reports of child sexual abuse to start discussions of safety, and reiterate that children should always tell a parent about anyone who is taking advantage of them sexually.
- Monitor children's use of technology, including cell phones, social networking sites, and messaging. Review contact lists regularly and ask about any people you don't recognize.
- Trust your instincts! If you feel uneasy about leaving your child with someone, don't do it. If you are concerned about possible sexual abuse, ask questions.
- If your child discloses any history of sexual abuse, stay calm, listen carefully, and take his or her disclosure seriously. Never blame the child. Too often, children are not believed, particularly if they implicate a family member as the perpetrator. Contact your pediatrician, the local child protection service agency, or the police. If you don't intervene, the abuse might continue, and the child may come to believe that home is not safe and that you are not available to help.
- Let he or she know they are not responsible for the abuse.
- Get a medical examination done to ensure that the child's physical health has not been affected by the abuse.
- Seek professional counseling to help.
- If you have concerns that your child may be a victim of sexual abuse, you should talk with your pediatrician. Your physician can discuss your concerns, examine your child, and make necessary referrals and reports.
If you observe interactions or behaviors that concern you, speak up. Say, "I'm uncomfortable when you hug Ana after every race. How about high-fiving instead?" If your child suddenly loses interest in an activity they previously enjoyed or tells you they want to quit, consider the possibility that someone has made them uncomfortable or unsafe. Support their "no" while trying to understand what's behind it.
My dream is that no person ever has to deal with any type of sexual abuse. If it happens though, know you are not alone and there is help out there for you and your family. It's not your fault and there is light at the end of the tunnel. I wish you all healthy and safe journeys in life and nothing but the best.
1. Briere, J.,Eliot, D.M., 2003
2. Finkelhor 2004
3. Finkelhor 2004
4. Stop It Now! unpublished maket research data 1997 to 2007
5. Hanson, Resnick, Saunders, Kilpatrick, 1999