In America, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience sexual abuse by age 18. (1) Deep breath mamas, these are the numbers. If they take you by surprise, also take a moment to think about what this means in relation to how many of us as moms are living as survivors of child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse has been named one the greatest health epidemics, one with many lingering heath consequences, yet somehow it remains silent.
As a mother, having three babies of my own at home, I grieve these realities in a whole new way. There are days that I would like to go pick up my children and keep them home for the rest of time. But as it turns out, this is not possible, nor helpful to anyone. So what can I do? What can we all do to protect kids as they learn and grow, as they go off to daycare, school, sports, church, and all the activities where we entrust others with our children’s care?
ACKNOWLEDGE IT IS REAL
I truly believe this is the first step. Yes, it would be much more comfortable to pretend this is not real and write off these astounding statistics. But in this case, ignorance is not bliss. The magnitude of this problem is too great to risk pretending it is not real. It is incredibly likely you know a child that is or has been abused, and if we have chosen to ignore the problem, we miss the opportunity to see the warning signs and to step in to protect children.
We must learn what sexual abuse looks like and understand how it occurs.
- Sexual abusers look like anyone else and are often someone the child knows and trusts–about 90% of children know their abuser, about 60% are abused by someone the family trusts. (2)
- Abusers are not only adults, as many as 40% of children are abused by older, more powerful, children. (3)
- Abusers often use ‘grooming.’ This means they start giving special attention to the child and finding ways to have alone time with them. They also will often work to gain the trust of the family as well.
- Sexual abuse happens across all socioeconomic levels, religions, age, race and ethnic groups.
- No child is immune to sexual abuse and having instability in their home or barriers to communicating can increase the risk.
BREAK THE SILENCE
Oh, the silence. This is the thing that gets me the most. The silence and secrecy around sexual abuse is often what allows abuse to continue. While I understand starting conversations with those around us can be uncomfortable, or we can worry about offending those we love, these conversations are much more important than those feelings. Please, please, talk about it. That is our best defense.
Talk to Your Kids
We are our children’s primary teachers, we teach them how to put their toys away, how to tie their shoes, let’s also teach them body safety. This is one of the most important things a parent can do, and I promise it’s not near as scary as you may think. The goal is simply to provide developmentally appropriate information to kids about their bodies and how to keep their bodies safe. We want them to learn from us first and to keep these conversations open and ongoing.
In our house it’s a lot of little conversations and modeling, just as we’d teach anything else, starting when they are very young.
- First, it is learning accurate names of body parts: elbow, knee, penis, vagina, you get the idea, and learning about which parts are private (where the bathing suit covers is one easy way to explain to very young children).
- We teach about ‘okay’ — comforting, pleasant, welcomed touches, and ‘not okay’ –intrusive, uncomfortable, unwanted, painful touches.
- We teach our kids they have the right to refuse any touch or affection if it is unwanted, even from mom and dad or other grown-ups. We want them to know they are in charge of their body, and no one is allowed to pressure them into touch that is unwelcome.
- We talk about what to do if someone gives them ‘not okay’ touches. “No, Go, Tell” is how the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center teaches this skill to preschool age children, and we use it at our house, too. Talking through who they can tell.
- We also strive to check in with our kids regularly, listening to the happenings of their day. We want to solidify that we are their ‘people,’ that they can talk to us, and that we value their experiences.
As kids get a bit older, conversations can continue to grow and meet them where they are in their understanding. You can use their questions and real-life situations as opportunities to begin to teach them more specifically about sexual abuse in age appropriate ways. You can help them identify trusted adults at school and other settings, you can encourage them to trust their gut feelings, and let them know they can come to you when they have questions about someone’s behavior. It is important parents continue having these open conversations with kids about sexuality and safety as they grow and develop, knowledge is protective.
Talk to Your People
Talk to those that care for your kids, your family, your schools, your church leaders, your coaches. Most are well aware we need to protect kids from physical harm, but what about protecting from sexual harm?
Anywhere your kids are being cared for, ask what policies and practices are in place to reduce risk. In daycares, a good practice involves a ‘two adult rule’ where children are not left one on one with an adult. Any organization working with children should have staff and volunteers trained in preventing, recognizing, and responding to child sexual abuse. If your child is in a home daycare, ask about who else is in and out of the home and ensure these people are not alone with the children or changing diapers. And most of all practice speaking up and questioning if you see concerning behavior or practices.
Talk to your family and neighbors. Get them on board in modeling healthy boundaries and safety. Let them know what you are teaching your children and why it is so important. You don’t have to be accusing anyone of being a sexual perpetrator to put safe, healthy boundaries in place. Think through big family events, visits to the cousins and friends’ houses, sports travel. In situations where your child is one-on-one with someone, think about stopping by unexpectedly from time to time or think through how visible their interactions are to others if they aren’t visible to you.
I’m not saying trust no-one and never let your child be alone with someone. One-on-one interactions are of course healthy and valuable to children, but let’s do our part to put boundaries in place to give the opportunity for safe healthy relationships.
What should we do when we suspect or wonder if something has happened? Because, let’s remember, a lot of our littles are dealing with this, so we all need to be prepared.
- Breathe, my beautiful mamas. This is not your fault. Your child is safe now and has YOU, their most important resource. So first and foremost, breathe in, breathe out. You want to be calm and accepting. Kids will often ‘test the waters’ of disclosing by giving a small amount of information or talking about ‘something that happened to a friend.’ They want to know if this is going to upset mom too much, or see if they going to be told they did something wrong. These are opportunities to stay calm and show our child we are a safe place.
- Listen to your child, believe your child, and let them know they did nothing wrong.
- If you suspect abuse has occurred, it needs to be reported.
- Get support. Remember those numbers I keep bringing up? Those are real. You are not alone, and there is help.
It is truly so important that we all are aware and work to protect the children around us; we can’t expect them to protect themselves. I hope you will join me in creating safe environments for our children.