Child sexual abuse: what you can do to protect your kids

Child sexual abuse: what you can do to protect your kids
“Sandusky was found guilty today,” my husband told me in the evening. I was glad for the news, yet as justifying as it may be to lock up a high-profile criminal, more roam free and prey on children. Many of them are close relatives or trusted friends of the family—the charming guy who earns the parents’ trust and plays well with the kids. This, compounded with my already-heightened paranoia, does not make for one happy mama.

Unlike other child safety issues like pool safety and road rules, child sexual abuse remains clouded with taboo that needs to be lifted. While we should encourage trust in others and self-sufficiency in themselves, we also need to balance their growing independence with information and a protocol to keep them safe.

Even though our toddler is only 2-years-old, we hold six general approaches that will hopefully help him understand and know what is acceptable or not (the first three we apply now while the last three we plan to tell him when he’s older and can comprehend better):

1. You have 100% jurisdiction over your body.
One of the reasons we don’t force our toddler to kiss and hug everyone is so he knows that he determines who gets to touch him. I’m also a hawk over others who want to tickle or kiss him excessively when he clearly isn’t having any of it and will step in on his behalf. With few exceptions (hygiene, health and safety, namely), we do our best to respect our toddler’s body to drive the point that his body is his own to touch.

2. It’s okay to say ‘no’ to others, even adults.
We “respect the no” and acknowledge or stop when our toddler says so. Adults have authority, but that doesn’t mean we’re always right, and we want our toddler to know that he can absolutely question and even defy authority should he feel it appropriate to do so.

3. We call our body parts by their anatomically-correct names.
Part of the taboo of child sexual abuse (or anything sexual really) is that we apply these funny names to our privates rather than using the anatomically correct names. The message? These parts can be shameful, aren’t to be mentioned, or are silly and funny. I get where this comes from; I myself have a hard time saying their names sometimes. But when an arm is called an ‘arm’ but privates are something completely different, he might assume that these issues aren’t easily talked about.

4. Trust your gut.
When something doesn’t feel right, even if it can’t be explained clearly, it’s okay to trust your gut. Predators often rely on their role as the trustworthy, charming guy or the authoritative, can’t-be-wrong guy, so it can be difficult for kids to listen to their feelings and defy people they’re supposed to trust.

5. Tell. Keep telling until someone listens.
We plan to tell our toddler that he should absolutely tell his mom or dad anything. And if we don’t listen, he should tell his grandmas. And his aunts and uncles. And his teachers. And keep telling until someone listens and acts on his behalf. I also want to ensure that there are no secrets kept between us, and that anyone saying they’ll hurt him or his family if he tells is all the more reason to speak up.

6. People have designated roles in your life, and no one should be crossing those lines.
For instance, it’s more appropriate for parents to cuddle and show physical affection with their kids than other adults. And as kids grow older, affection tends to lessen in lieu of more space and physical boundaries. Older men also shouldn’t be showering kids with gifts. And teachers should definitely not be blindfolding and giving kids cookies (or anything to eat, for that matter).

Hardly any parent wants their child to be the victim of sexual abuse; the mere thought of it makes me cry and get angry at the same time (which is why I can’t bring myself to read some of the crazy headlines in the news). Sadly, it happens far too often, and with victims so vulnerable, parents need to step up and ensure that we’re doing all that we can to keep our kids safe. Nothing is 100% guaranteed, but every little bit of action helps.

How do you educate your kids about child sexual abuse? What other tips can you offer to help protect children?

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26 thoughts on “Child sexual abuse: what you can do to protect your kids

  1. This is a very powerful post. It’s quite scary to know that sexual predators are out there; although so vital to know in order to keep your loved one(s) safe. My husband and I are in a disagreement with #3. I call body parts what they are and he likes to give a funny name for the “awkward” ones.

    I like your approach as to why we should call the part what it is. When he grows up, I don’t want my son feeling this topic is taboo. I really think your words will help with our minor disagreement. Thank you.

  2. This is a conversation that every parent needs to be open to discussing. We are big believers in #3, as well as telling our toddler that it is o.k for him to touch his own penis, but no one else can touch it without his permission. Sounds funny, but I remember a long time ago that as a girl you are taught that it is o.k to say no, but what about for a boy. I just think it is important for him to create his own boundaries. Sex also has to be a subject that is not judged in a household, it should always be an open conversation.

  3. These are very good principles to have. We are just starting to teach our daughter that certain areas (my mom used to tell us that anything our bathing suit covers) are private and only for her to touch unless she needs help using the bathroom.

    • Steph I heard this advice too and plan to use it, especially as a way to discuss the more sexual body parts. By then I think about those men who start off more subtly like rubbing s boy’s shoulders or excessively massaging him. It’s so hard to define because shoulders aren’t private parts but the way the man is touching them would potentially make him uncomfortable.

  4. Great post. On point. I 110% agree that us as parents, it’s our responsibility to teach our kids these things. Heck, it’s our responsibility with anything we teach them.

    We also taught little man to name his privates with their anatomically correct names. Especially now that we’re potty training him. But yes, it gets me so angry to think that these things happen and no one speaks up about it.

  5. This is such a fear of mine! I am so thankful to have a very stubborn little girl who is great at setting her own boundaries. She’ll loudly tell you if she doesn’t like something. While it drives me nuts sometimes, it also shows me that she doesn’t let anyone mess with her in a way she’s not comfortable with. Usually she will tell them no and come to me. I think, however, I need to be more concious when family members brush off the “no” thinking she doesn’t know what she wants. Lots of good points you make and great to think on. This topic saddens my heart!!

  6. This is a subject that we will raise with our little one as soon as he’s able to understand what we are telling him. I saw this great TV show on how to educate your children to identify inappropriate behavior and the workshop showed a silhouette picture of a child with danger zones identified i.e. chest, bottom and front (between the legs). I plan to have that workshop with bub as soon as possible – the thought of any child suffering through this is enough to cause nightmares.

  7. A scary topic but important! I think a lot of people start talking to their children too late, unfortunately. Great to cover it in toddlers. Two other biggies we do with C: we talk about “tricky” people and “tricky” behaviors rather than “strangers” because to a child a mailman is not a stranger, a neighbor is not a stranger and we also reinforce over and over that “surprises” are ok (they are fun, meant to be told in the near future, etc) but “secrets” are not ok. We do NOT keep secrets in our family. (Using the different words for surprises and secrets was my friend’s suggestion and has clarified the issue greatly for C).
    Thanks for covering this topic.

    • Note to other readers: check out seventhacreheaven’s post!

      I like your wording with “tricky” because like you said, it’s not just strangers (and usually it’s someone the kid knows) who preys on them. That’s sort of what I was trying to get across with the last point about people crossing lines with their roles. Teachers should teach, not give kids cookies or blindfold them—that would be a “tricky” thing to do. Or like you mentioned in your post, adults wouldn’t ask children for help, or say that mom and dad sent him to come pick him up.

      After reading your post I realized my post was geared more towards sexual abuse from a trusted adult. I suppose since my kid is still young, we haven’t discussed actual strangers snatching them up or luring them to places. That’s a *whole* other topic! Sigh… so difficult to think about but so necessary nonetheless.

  8. This is a great post. To expand on seventhacreheaven’s point about how children perceive “strangers,” I think it’s worth pointing out that most sexual predators, like Sandusky, are not strangers in any way. They’re not people who have casual interaction with the children they’ve victimized. Most of them deliberately put themselves in a position of trust and authority so that they can take advantage of the vulnerable.

    So I think another thing to teach your children is how not to feel or seem vulnerable. Among other things, we’re planning to make sure that Baguette learns martial arts, so that she has confidence about her body and her own self-control.

    • Exactly—that’s why I’m so scared :/ Sadly most abusers are trusted adults, so it’s confusing for kids who feel like they should trust this guy except that something doesn’t seem right. I also don’t want my kid to distrust everyone, so it’s a weird balance of, “Okay, trust people… but once something shady happens, let me know.”

      Because it’s not enough to say “don’t talk to strangers”; we should also focus on what is appropriate behavior from *any* adult/older child, and how to say no loud and clear.

      • The thing is, that’s kind of how we all have to live. If we walk around distrusting everyone, we literally have no society. So we trust people–but we need to realize that “something doesn’t seem right” is kind of a dealbreaker. It trumps everything else that might otherwise reinforce trust. And that’s what we have to teach our kids.

  9. Thank you for tackling this subject. Livi still wouldn’t understand but we are starting to get things going. I think it’s best to start talking about it while they are toddlers. 
    We also use the word “surprise” instead of “secret” and say that there are no secrets in our house because often abusers will tell the child that it is a secret between the two of them. So I want Livi to be aware of the difference and think of secrets as something bad that you need to tell your parents. We will also encourage her to tell us everything, no matter what, so that she will feel comfortable with it. 
    We will tell her about strangers (I like the “tricky” approach); but also, every time we put her in a new situation where there will be a new person of trust, like a teacher or instructor, parents of her friends, and I hate to say it, but also (extended) family, we will reinforce the idea of telling us if something doesn’t feel right or she is in any way uncomfortable. And then check back with her from time to time. 
    I just hope that it will be enough and we never have to deal with this nightmare. 

    • This discussion is the first time I’ve heard of “surprise” vs “secret” and I think it’s a great tip. It’s removing the joy of surprises from the potentially painful burden of having to keep a secret. Thanks hnMom and seventhacreheaven for pointing this out.

  10. Thanks for bringing this important subject up. I am slightly paranoid about this. It is a hard topic for me to think about. One thing to note too, is that it is often an older child/teen/not just adults… I liked your suggestions. Thanks!

  11. Such an important topic!

    As Tragic Sandwich pointed out it is the vulnerable children that are the targets of predators. By starting early and teaching our children the approaches you list in this post I think we don’t need to be consumed by the fear that something will happen. I am not saying at all that we can let our guard down, fail to be vigilant or mindful, just that we can manage to strike the balance between awareness and fear, watchfulness and paranoia, and manage to teach our children not to be afraid of building healthy relationships with others in our communities. Predators take a big risk when they offend against a child, and it is usually well calculated. They don’t target children that have a strong sense of boundaries and self, and that have strong lines of open communication with their parents. Unfortunately, there are plenty of children in our communities without these things from which to choose… so I think it is on us to be vigilant as much as possible for the children in our lives that aren’t “ours” as well.

    It seems to me though that when abuse is at the hands of older children and teens it is not the product of calculation and “grooming” of the relationship but more a matter of impulse and in the moment opportunity. We need to be careful about not allowing such unsupervised opportunities occur, even with the older children of family friends and our children’s cousins.

    • Two great points, Karen.

      I think in addition to educating our kids, just the fact that we are even educating them is already a big turn off for potential predators. It’s harder to get to the child when his or her parents are super involved and supportive. Not only because the child would actually have already had a talking-to, but because he or she wouldn’t feel the need to rely on another adult or community for a sense of belonging. This isn’t always guaranteed, of course—even the most involved parents unfortunately have children who are victims—but I’m willing to bet that it would help a whole lot.

      And yes, you and Johanna mentioned correctly that it’s not just adults too, that older kids and teens can also take advantage of younger children, even if they’re family.

      I hate to come off as distrustful of my own family and people I know, and I don’t “suspect” anyone I know as a likely candidate, but at the same time, statistics don’t lie when they say most predators are people the kids already know. I don’t think it’s that we have to not trust our families, but that we can’t just rule them out either.

    • “I think it is on us to be vigilant as much as possible for the children in our lives that aren’t “ours” as well. ”

      This is so true. I remember a story from my childhood about a little girl’s statement that horrified people and led them to encourage their children to stay away from her–but there simply wasn’t the awareness about abuse then that there is now. If I were to hear the same story about a child today, I would call CPS. Because it is now clear to me that someone did something they shouldn’t have to that little girl.

  12. A great post on this taboo subject. I must admit I’ve not discussed it with Mushroom yet as he’s so young (15 months) but this is a good reminder that its never to early to set boundaries. He’s very affectionate and loves to hug people so I sometimes worry he wouldn’t know when someone has crossed the line. However he makes it clear when I’ve hugged him too long so I hope he draws the same lines with other adults.

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