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No one wants to think that their child could be vulnerable to a sexual predator or abuse, but the odds that a child will be molested by someone know they know are extremely high. Here are several ideas on how to start at a young age to keep your children safe.
Hey y’all, Tiffany here.
This is probably the most difficult post I’ve ever written, but it’s been weighing on my soul lately, and I need to share it.
This is a topic that is extremely personal for me, both from personal experience and the tragedies that I have seen occur in the lives of close friends.
Almost every single time, the parents had no idea what was going on. Not because they were bad or disengaged parents, but because they had not taught the children how to protect themselves and were unaware of warning signs to look for.
The ideas in this post stem primarily from training that Phillip and I have received as foster parents, as well as my education degree and training for church assignments.
As many as 85% of the children in foster care have been sexually abused. Sexual abuse runs on a spectrum that starts at inappopriate verbal or visual abuse (such as seeing graphic television shows or hearing inappropriate behavior by adults in the home on a regular basis), all the way to rape and assault.
What you can do as a parent
Most parents feel like they don’t want to talk about body safety with their children, especially young children, because they don’t want to mar their beautiful innocence. But the reality is, I have personally seen children molested as young as toddlers and babies.
Basically, you can never start too early in educating your children about body safety.
1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be victims of sexual abuse before they turn 18 years old. That means that in your child’s elementary school class of 12 girls and 12 boys, 3 of the girls and 2 of the boys will be victims. And 82% of all juvenile victims are female.
Before you think that false allegations are common, please recognize that they occur in less than 5% of reported cases, and 3/5 of those circumstances were because children were coached against another parent during a custody battle.
Be safe around everyone, even if you trust them
In close to 90% of reported cases of abuse, the child already knew the person who abused them. And in 50% of reported cases of the abuse, the abuser is a member of the child’s family or extended family.
“Stranger danger” is really not enough in keeping children safe from predators. Secual offenders can be male or female. They often have stable employment and get along well with others.
Use appropriate words
Believe it or not, having “special” words for body parts is something that abusers look for. It shows the predator that the child has parents who are uncomfortable speaking about sex or the body.
Note: “private parts” is okay to use to describe these parts in general, but that should not be the only word your child knows.
Here are some examples of “cute” words:
- hot dog
- lady bits
- down there
Here are the anatomically correct words:
Some of them may feel awkward to say, especially if you were raised using cute words. However, children knowing the anatomically correct words of their bodies not only is a good line of defense to keep them safe, but also to be able to report. One psychologist had a patient who as a child reported to her teacher that someone “wanted her cookie” and the teacher told her she had to share.
If an accusation does go to court, it is almost entirely based on the child’s testimony. Jurors’ votes are based heavily on how credible the child appears as a witness and they tend towards bias against a child who cannot accurately describe what happened.
Keep this in mind if you feel uncomfortable: you are not teaching sex, you are teaching anatomy. You are teaching your child that their body is a gift from God, and there is nothing shameful about any part of it.
Speak with your children frequently
One of the biggest ways to keep your children safe is to speak with them frequently. Don’t simply ask how an activity went, but ask more specific questions:
- What did you do?
- What was your favorite part? What was your least favorite part?
- Who was there? Who did you spend time with the most? The least?
- Were there any problems? If not, who there could have helped you with a problem?
- Did you feel safe?
- Is there anything else you want to share?
- Do not ask: “were you good, did you listen and do what you were told?”
Role-play scenarios with your children, especially for the situations in the next section.
Also take the time to listen to your children. If they dodge around an answer, do not be afraid to keep asking or digging. As children get older, they may feel as though you are intruding on their privacy, but your responsibility as a parent is make sure they are safe.
Also take the time to talk about the difference between secrets and surprises. A surprise is something fun, like a birthday present. The ultimate result is that someone will be told, just not right now.
A secret implies that it will always remain just between the two people, and that is not okay. Specifically, a child should know that a body secret should never, ever be kept. If someone asks them to keep a body secret, they need to tell a trusted adult right away. Reassure your child that they will never, ever be in trouble for telling you a body secret.
Let children know that touching private parts might feel good, but it doesn’t make it okay and should always be talked about with an adult.
Have conversations about pornography with children – studies show that at least half of children aged 11-16 have been exposed to online porn. Of this group, almost all (94%) have seen it by age 14. Over half of the boys (53%) believe that the porn they had seen was realistic. More than a third (39%) of 13-14 year-olds who responded to this question – and a fifth of 11-12 of year-olds (21%) – wanted to repeat porn acts. The interesting part? These answers came despite more than 3/4 of the kids agreeing that porn didn’t help them understand consent.
Avoid dangerous situations
There are so many situations that seem innocent but can easily be an opportunity for an abuser to take advantage. Here are some common situations that are easily taken advantage of by predators.
- Regular rides to/from practice or school
- Bathroom trips by themselves, even in a “safe” place like church or school
- Playing unattended with other children at large gatherings, like a church party or school activity. (Our children are not allowed to go off with friends into the hallways unless an adult is nearby. Phillip and I will also take turns walking through church hallways and opening any classroom doors that are closed)
- Babysitters of the opposite gender, even if it’s an older sibling or close relative
- Summer camps (even if there is only one gender present)
- An adult or older child who seems unusally friendly with younger children, gives gifts, singles them out, tickles, etc. (although be aware that sometimes this may stem from a diagnosis like autism, Down’s Syndrome, etc.)
- Movie nights with friends (whether in theaters or at someone’s home)
This does not mean that all of these situations are bad, but they should be approached with extreme caution. The levels of child-on-child sexual abuse are significantly on the rise, mostly due to the early exposure of pornography (as discussed in the previous section).
Help children make a list of trusted adults. This list should include at least a few other people who are not the child’s primary caregiver. Specifically ask your children questions like: “Who would you tell if someone touched your in a private place or asked you to keep a body secret? What if Daddy/Mommy/guardian were the person who did it – who could you tell then?”
Make sure you also give your child enough love and attention that they won’t have a void that needs to be filled. Usually children in single-parent households are considered easier targets because they are missing a role-model.
Have age-appropriate conversations
Please do not wait until puberty to start talking to your child about their body. Healthy body image takes years to develop, especially living in a world where so many conflicting messages exist. I’ve seen children as young as four imitating behaviors that are extemely inappropriate because of what they’ve seen in their homes, on their televisions, etc.
You can’t really know what the other kindergartners at school are bringing from their homes.
Unlike several decades ago, there really should not be one “the talk” with your child and have that be it. There is a wonderful guide from Sex Ed Rescue that goes through each age group with lots of detail on what you should talk about. Some of these may not be in line with what your beliefs are, but the age to discuss them is accurage.
If you are looking for some reading material to help, because you just don’t feel comfortable speaking spontaneously with your child, Sex Ed Rescue has reviewed over 250 sex education books.
Warning signs to look for
Here is a list of warning signs to look for, separated by age. While none of these warning signs are enough to determine if your child is being sexually abused, if multiple signs are occuring at once (especially when they have never occurred before), then they are definitely indicators that there is something wrong.
While these are separated by age, they are also continuous; signs that are listed in a younger age group are also signs for an older age group.
** means that this symptom on its own is a strong indicator of sexual abuse
Babies and toddlers
- genital or urinary irritation, injury, or infection**
- frequent, unexplained physical symptoms
- intense fear of individuals or people in general
- nighmares, night terrors, sleep disturbances
- phobic behavior
- extreme upset at diapering, undressing, or bathing,
- reluctance to be touched (may also indicate physical abuse)
- sexualized behaviors** (see the appropriate behavior chart below)
- child’s statement indicating sexual abuse**
- excessive masturbation
- sexual curiosity and/or knowledge
- tries to involve others in sexual activity
- sexualized drawings
- bed-wetting, pants-wetting/soiling
- other regressive behaviors
- biting and other aggressive behaviors
- extreme bossiness
- over-sensitivity to sounds, movement
School-aged children (ages 5-10)
- unable to make and keep friends (at least one)
- poor school performance
- depression or “numb” emotions
- mistrust of adults in general
- poor self-esteem
- gender confusion
- self-destructive activity or self-harm
- suicidal plans or attempts
- delinquent behavior and/or running away
- prostitution or other unusual sexual behavior**
- using sex to fill nonsexual needs**
- forcing others into unwanted sexual contact**
In addition to knowing the warning signs, you should also be aware of what is age-appropriate for your child’s behavior.
In our foster care training, we were given some charts that showed what types of behavior are or are not appropriate for different age levels. I’ve combined them into one document for you.
- Green – usually appropriate, within normal developmental levels (doesn’t mean it’s okay behavior, it just means not to freak out if you see it happening)
- Yellow – there is cause for concern, usually only needs redirection if you already know about the child’s abuse, otherwise it is a strong indicator of abuse
- Red – inappropriate, often illegal, and harmful; may indicate medical issues; contact professionals to get help in dealing with behavior
You can download the document HERE. I will not be posting it directly into this post, because some of the descriptions for the red level can be disturbing or triggering. But please know that I have seen the red level occur at all ages. Some of them seem extreme, but that is the sad tragedy of the evil in our world.
What do to when you suspect or know about abuse
First, stay calm. Try not to react or overreact. Yes, it is absolutely terrifying and you are probably going to freeze up and then want to bombard the child with a lot of questions. Don’t do this.
Also, do not give any indication that you don’t believe the child. For example, do not ask, “Are you sure that’s what happened?”
Do not ask a lot of questions, especially for children of a younger age. There are experts with CPS and the police who are trained to get information from the child without leading them in any direction. Your questions may bias that process. All you need to know is who specifically did it, and determine the general level of inappropriateness (inappropriate touching all way to full rape).
It is difficult for parents to stop sexual abuse without help from experts. The hard but healthy way to deal with the problem is:
- Face the issue.
- Take charge of the situation.
- Work to avoid future abuse.
- Discuss it with your pediatrician, who can provide support and counseling.
- Report abuse to your local child protection service agency and ask about crisis support help.
Talking about sexual abuse can be very hard for the child who has been told not to tell by a trusted adult. It can be just as hard for adults if the abuser is close to them. Still, the abuse should be reported to your local child protection agency or your doctor. It is the best thing to do for both the child and the family.