Here are some simple, effective things you can start doing to protect children…
- Know the facts. About 90% of the time, children and youth are molested by someone they know. Only 10% to 14% of child victims are harmed by strangers.1 Stranger Danger is a myth! It’s understandable why people would believe in stranger danger. It feels better to think that child sexual abuse only happens “out there” and not within their circles, but believing in this myth causes people to ignore their gut instincts. Which leads us to the next point.
- Listen to your gut responses. When something doesn’t feel right to you, listen to your instincts even if you can’t analyze what’s wrong and even if you don’t have the support of other people. If you have that gut response to anyone including a person whom you know and trust, heed your intuition and find ways to protect your child from that person. Many offenders are someone’s parent, grandparent, older sibling, aunt, uncle, coach, teacher, neighbor, babysitter, family friend, and even those in the political and religious fields. To be clear, the majority of the people in these categories and relationships are good people but it only takes one offender to abuse many children. Pedophiles know that the best way to gain access to a child is to first gain the trust of parents and caregivers. Once it’s gained, parents think it’s safe to leave their children with the perceived trustworthy individual.2
- Teach children that their bodies belong to them, and not just any adult can help them with certain activities. This is especially important for young children. Sit down and help them identify the few people who are allowed to help them with bathing, getting dressed, going to the bathroom, and other activities that involve contact or exposure to their private parts. Explain “private parts” as “those parts that are covered by a bathing suit”. Doctors and nurses provide physical examinations only when a parent is present.
- Teach your children it’s okay to say “No” to adults. Most children are socialized to respect adults, but being respectful doesn’t mean compliance with everything adults want to do. Offenders use their power and authority as grown-ups to trick, command, threaten,or manipulate children to do what they want. When children are told to comply with everything, it makes them more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
- Don’t make children hug or kiss every adult they meet. Most of the time, parents and caregivers do this as part of teaching manners to their children, or because they don’t want other adults to feel hurt or think poorly of them as parents if their children can’t perform social gestures. But again, children’s bodies belong to them and they should have a choice as to who can make contact. Adults consider this as a given with regards to their own bodies, and children have a greater need for it because they’re so vulnerable. Tell children it’s okay to give high-fives, handshakes, or just wave if that’s what they feel comfortable doing. By letting them choose how to greet people instead of making them give hugs and kisses, you’re also teaching them that they should listen to their internal responses to people and situations. Speaking of children’s gut responses…
- Teach them about the “Uh-oh Feeling.”Children are taught to look left and right before crossing the street but if they get an “uh-oh feeling” or butterflies in the tummy, they’re supposed to listen to it and not cross the street anyway. It’s the same thing with keeping them safe from predators. Even before sexual touching starts, children could feel that something is off. If this should happen, they should say “No!” and run to tell a trusted adult. If we help children cultivate and listen to their gut responses, it will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
- Help children learn the difference between Good and Bad Secrets. An easy way to explain this is that good secrets make people feel happy and good, and bad secrets make people feel confused, angry, and/or sad. Teach them when it’s okay to be part of a good secret. For example, staying quiet about Dad’s surprise birthday party is a good secret. An example of a bad one is when an adult tells a child that it’s their special secret to play doctor and touch/see/take photos of each other’s private parts. If the latter should happen, children should be instructed to tell someone in their Safe Circle. Speaking of which…
- Help children create a Safe Circle. Draw a simple line drawing. Inside the circle, work together on listing the names of trusted adults. Explain that these are people who are protective of them and would help in case someone tries to hurt them or have harmed them. Have an age-appropriate conversation about why these adults are inside the circle: What have they been doing to care for the child? How do these adults keep them safe?
- Teach children the difference between Good Touches, Bad Touches, and Confusing Touches. A good touch is something that makes them feel happy, safe, or good, like a hug from Mom or a high five from a friend. A bad touch is any touch that makes them feel sad, angry, or unsafe, like being pushed, hit, or touched in their private parts. A confusing touch is something that may feel good at the beginning then becomes unwanted, like a tickling session that went on too long. One example of how a touch can go from good to confusing to bad is when a child is being comforted by an adult by being hugged and stroked on the upper back, then the strokes go to the lower back and then to privates.
- Keep an open line of communication with your children. Have conversations about their activities without having an agenda. Listen and learn about what they’re going through and ask questions. When children and teens know that you’re a listening ear, they respond well when you ask if there is anyone or anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. They will be forthcoming when they see that you listen well, and they would be unlikely to resort to indirect disclosures. One of the most indirect ways that children disclose about molestation is by saying, “Don’t make me go there! I don’t want to stay with grandpa/auntie/babysitter!”. When they make statements like this the response should be a conversation, not censure. The response of, “Don’t be difficult. We’re going.” is one that shuts down communication. Instead, ask them why and really listen.
- Be savvy about child sexual abuse: It’s not just about touching. It is any behavior by an adult or older child toward minors ages 0-17 for the adult/older child’s sexual satisfaction. It covers a wide range of behaviors that includes verbal sexual abuse, such as saying inappropriate statements (“hey, you look very sexy in those shorts, little girl”), questions, and comments that sexualize children. Then there’s visual sexual abuse. Some examples: taking photos and videos of children without clothes and/or in sexual poses; showing them pornographic movies and photos; offender being naked, masturbating, or having sex in front of child; going into the bathroom while child/teen is taking a shower, sexting and sending inappropriate photos by phone or online. Physical sexual abuse includes touching over clothes, under clothes, fondling, penetration with fingers or sexual parts or objects, and rape with violence. Then there’s commercial sexual exploitation of children in-person or online. A lot of people think that CSA is only the latter two, but the impact of verbal and visual sexual abuse are long term and detrimental to a child’s health and mental well being.
- Accept that we, as adults, always have the responsibility to keep children safe.Not a prevention tip but a much-needed reminder – one that has significant impact on a child’s healing from abuse. If, in spite of teaching them all of the above tips, the child was molested or almost molested but didn’t tell you about it or didn’t tell right away – please be aware that feelings of shame, confusion, and fear are behind this. They may have been threatened or tricked, or may be experiencing depression, numbness, or feeling that things are unreal/surreal because of the abuse. Most are afraid they would be blamed – and sometimes this happens. The following are some responses to a child’s disclosure that will only exacerbate the negative mental and emotional impact of sexual abuse:
- Blaming the child for various reasons such as not disclosing or not disclosing right away, or not being able to say “no” and run away
- Asking “Why did you let it happen, after everything I taught you?”
- Not believing the child for any reason, including that the adult seems trustworthy
- Saying that the child is only doing this to get attention
The right response is to assure them it was never their fault and the only blame and shame is on the person who harmed them. Then, as soon as possible, find support for your child and family.
Prevention is on all of us. Everyone can be an advocate for child sexual abuse prevention, and it often begins at home.
If you suspect that a child is being abused in New York, please call the 24/7 toll free statewide telephone number: 1-800-342-3720. If you believe that a child is in immediate danger, please call 911 or your local police department.
Original Blog August 1, 2019 on NinoNuevo Consulting 12 Ways To Prevent Child Sexual Abuse.
Photo credit above – Jenn Evelyn Ann
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Ireen NinoNuevo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who specializes in the treatment and prevention of child sexual abuse, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. Her therapeutic approach is warm and empathetic. She uses talk therapy and creative interventions to help people achieve their goals. She believes that trust is important in the counseling relationship especially when people have experienced the betrayal of trust. Call (929) 506-5062 or email Ireen@itherapymail.com to set up a session. Visit Ireen NinoNuevo’s Profile.