Sexual abuse. This is not a topic that most people like even thinking about, much less talking about. It is estimated that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. To put this in perspective, it means in a classroom of 25 High School Seniors, 3 of the girls and 2 of the boys will have likely been sexually abused. And sadly, black children are almost twice as likely to be abused sexually than children of other races.
People who experience such abuse are at higher risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide attempts and difficulties in romantic relationships. But there are things that you can do that will hopefully lower the risk of your child, and other children you know, becoming victims of this crime.
1. Refer to your child’s body parts by their correct anatomical terms.
Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Testicles. Hearing these words makes many people uncomfortable, and even more so when coming out of a young child’s mouth. However, giving your child the proper knowledge about their body parts makes people who sexually abuse children uncomfortable too. By using the scientific terms, it becomes clear to a potential abuser that your child is knowledgeable about his body, and could report any inappropriate touching using the correct terms.
Additionally, if you consistently refer to these body parts correctly, and one day your child comes home calling his penis a ding dong, that becomes a signal to you that someone else has been talking with your child about his private parts. This gives you an excellent opportunity to further explore the circumstances surrounding such a conversation.
So get over whatever hangups you might have about that area down there, and start using the words from your old Health Sciences textbook. Penis penis penis. Vagina vagina vagina. See? It’s not so hard.
2. Always allow your child to choose when to show affection–Never force him to be affectionate towards anyone.
“Gimme a kiss.”
“Go give Auntie some sugar.”
“Hug your brother and tell him you’re sorry.”
How many times have you heard young children being instructed to display affection towards another person, even when it is clear they don’t want to? This is something that so many parents do, in the interest of raising polite and friendly kids. But another message that comes across when you force a child to kiss or hug is this one: “Your feelings are not important, and it is okay to have your physical boundaries violated in order to serve another person’s needs.”
Instead you can try:
“Can I have a kiss?”
“Would you like to give Grandma a hug goodbye?”
If the child feels like it, great. If not, that’s fine too. You can always tell the other person “Oh not today, maybe next time.” Or maybe not–it’s really up to your kid. Using phrases like these show your child that he is in control, and he is always free to say yes or no. Also remember that fist bumps, high fives, blowing kisses, etc. are all great ways to show fondness for other people that involve much less personal space.
If you encounter resistance from others in your life around this: Just explain to them why you’re doing it. Anyone that truly cares about your child should applaud and support your efforts to help keep him safe. If they don’t, it would probably be worth it to look at how else that person violates your boundaries in the relationship.
3. Stop telling your child to, “Be good.”
Of course we all want children that follow the rules. However, when we say things like “Be good, ” we can sometimes send the message that being obedient is something that we value over all other things. People who sexually abuse children are looking for young people that are compliant and don’t question authority. So when you drop your child off at school, try saying “Learn lots.” Or at a sleepover, “Have a great time.” When my friends would go out for a night of partying in college, the mantra was, “Have fun. Be safe.” These are small ways to consistently reinforce the message that as your child’s parent, you will support him in not being good, if that means trusting his instincts in uncomfortable situations.
4. Let your child know that he can always come to talk to you about ANYTHING.
It is important to keep the lines of communication open with our children. If we don’t listen to the small things, they are not going to come to us about the big things. One way we can foster that communication is by asking our children open-ended questions. An open ended question is a question that can’t be answered with just a “yes” or “no”
So instead of:
“Did you have fun at school today?” try “How was school?”
When they answer try saying, “Oh really? Tell me more.” Or something similar–just whatever feels natural and is going to keep your child talking.
Another part of open communication is being available to answer questions, even those questions that might make us uncomfortable. So if your child asks you out of the blue about sex or drugs or the new health care law or whatever, don’t shut the conversation down. Just answer their questions as best you can in an age-appropriate way, and do what you can to keep the conversation going. If your child asks you a question that catches you off guard, don’t just answer it–try to figure out what is motivating your child to ask in the first place. And if it is a topic you feel very uncomfortable with, take some deep breaths and try to remain calm. Children are like dogs–they can smell fear.
5. Know that potential abusers may not be who you’d expect.
The image in the media of people that sexually abuse children and the reality are often very different pictures. Statistically, it’s not the stranger lurking in the bushes that we should be most concerned about, it’s the people in our children’s lives that they like, trust, and sometimes even love. People that abuse children often use the close relationship that they have developed with the child as a way to keep the abuse a secret. If you are not familiar with the term grooming process, please google it to learn more.
Studies also show that children that live in a household with their mother and a male that is not related to the child (a boyfriend, a stepfather, a roommate, )–these children are 20 times more likely to be abused than a child that lives with both of his biological parents. Now, I’m not trying to start a debate about the ideal family structure. I just want to ask single moms especially to please be careful about the people that you allow to to be alone with your child. I can understand why a mother would see a potential mate who seems to be excited about meeting her children and really friendly towards them as a positive. I personally would see that as a red flag. A man that is interested in me romantically should be interested in me, not my kids.
I know a woman who was on one of her first dates with a man who told her that he wanted to take her child camping.Yes, alone. Needless to say, he did not get another date. This is just one example, but if you familiarize yourself with the grooming process, you can learn about many others. Adults should feel most comfortable with and most interested in spending time with other adults–not children.
It is also worth noting that a disproportionate number of crimes of sexual abuse are not committed by adults, but by children under the age of 18. So your pre-teen babysitter, your child’s older “friend” from down the street–these are people that you need to be cautious of as well.
6. Handle your business.
Your children need to know that as their parent, you are there to protect and nurture them–not the other way around. You are the adult, you are responsible for your own feelings. Your children don’t make you angry or happy or sad. Just like everyone else in your life, your children behave a certain way and you make a choice about how to respond.
Don’t make your children responsible for your emotional baggage (and we’ve all got baggage.) They are not psychologically equipped to deal with it. If your children feel like it is their responsibility to take care of you, they might avoid coming to you with news that they don’t think you can handle. If you find yourself leaning on your kids to fulfill your emotional needs, I hope you’ll consider getting help from another trusted adult.
In addition, another risk factor for abuse is having parents that are struggling with substance abuse issues. If you think you might have a problem with alcohol or other drugs, please do what you need to do to take care of yourself. There are a number of free resources around the globe for people struggling: alcoholics anonymous (www.aa.org) and narcotics anonymous (www.na.org) are just two that come to mind. You owe it to your kids (and to yourself, ) to be an emotionally healthy, present and vibrant person.
6 1/2. Reach out to others.
I called this one 6 1/2 because it doesn’t have anything to do with protecting your own children. It has to do with protecting other children. People that sexually abuse children often target kids that seem isolated, neglected or in need of positive attention. If there is a child in your neighborhood that often seems to be alone or unprotected by his or her own parents–perhaps consider inviting the child into your home. Even if it’s just a couple of hours sitting in front of the TV watching cartoons, that is more time that they are in the care of a concerned, responsible adult.
Finally, if you are reading this and you experienced sexual abuse in your own life, please know that it was not your fault. If you find yourself still struggling with the effects of the experience, there is help available. www.rainn.org is an organization that offers resources for people that have experienced various types of sexual assault, including a 24-hour online helpline. Healing is possible; you just have to take the necessary steps to find it.
Thank you for reading. If there are additional tips or other thoughts that you’d like to share–please leave them in the comments.
DeAnna is a former psychotherapist turned blogger and stay-at-home mom. You can read her thoughts about race, racism and other forms of inequality on her blog: www.myblackfriendsays.com