Preventing Child Sexual Abuse as Parents & Caregivers
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WHAT IS SEXUAL CHILD ABUSE?
Sexual child abuse is a type of maltreatment, violation, and exploitation that refers to the involvement of the child in sexual activity to provide sexual gratification or financial benefit to the perpetrator. The meaning of sexual abuse is broad. It includes contact for sexual purposes, molestation, statutory rape, prostitution, pornography, exposure, incest, or other sexually exploitative activities
While many link child sexual abuse prevention to “stranger danger,” the reality is that most instances involve a perpetrator who knows the victim. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, 93% of cases of child sexual abuse reported to law enforcement involve a perpetrator the victim is familiar with, with a third of cases involving a family member.
These statistics show that a key component to protecting children from child sexual abuse is an open dialogue about body safety between children and their caregivers. These conversations often take place after a caregiver has learned more about the signs and safety measures regarding child sexual abuse, so they can feel equipped to support their child through the years.
CONVERSATIONS ABOUT BODY SAFETY
A helpful place to start the conversation about body safety with younger children is with the concept of consent, and that it’s always okay to say “no.” These conversations should continue and become more nuanced as children get older. They should be simple and straightforward, not focusing on instilling fear in the child, but instead empowering them with the awareness and autonomy they deserve at any given age.
Finding the right time to talk about these topics may seem difficult, but look for opportunities where the topic may come up naturally, perhaps during bathtime, or when a child has a chance to feel more privacy and less eye contact, such as during a car ride. Other tips to consider include:
Discuss Body Parts
A good place to begin discussions about body safety is by discussing body parts themselves. Pediatricians agree that it’s best to start age-appropriate conversations about body parts during the toddler years and to answer any body-related questions that often come from kids during these years. The younger the child, the shorter your responses may be – it’s fine to keep answers or explanations short and simple, then ask if what you said made sense or if they have any questions.
Experts also suggest using proper names for all body parts and private parts, that making up nicknames may give your child the impression that there is something wrong or bad with saying the real name. It also helps them properly describe anything concerning that may have happened to them. Finally, help your kids understand which parts of their bodies are private (you might describe it as anything that is covered up by their swimsuit).
Talk about sharing information with a trusted adult
Children should know that you and other trusted adults in their lives want to know about anything scary or concerning that happens to them and that they will never be in trouble for being a part of it in the first place. Talk about the handful of trusted adults in your child’s life they can turn to about any negative experiences or feelings.
Scrap any talk of secrets
Keep secrets and the idea of playful “secrets” out of your family’s vocabulary. Some parents may choose to use the word “surprise” in place of instances where they would otherwise say “secret” and to explain the difference between the two. This helps reinforce the idea that there is never a good reason children should keep a secret from their parents, and that if they are asked to keep one, they should tell you right away.
Talk About Consent
Ask your child about the sort of touches they enjoy (perhaps hugs from a friend or cuddles with a parent) and those they dislike (perhaps tickling or pinching from a sibling). Let them know touching someone else without their consent is not okay, and that they should never feel ashamed for saying “no” and saying it loudly. If any sort of touch or questions about touch make them feel confused, scared, worried or if they want it to stop, let them know they can and should always say “no,” even if it happens with someone they love or admire. You might describe this as listening to their “uh-oh feeling.”
Practicing body safety happens during normal and seemingly innocent life events as well. For example, it’s recommended that you never force your children to give hugs or kisses to people that they do not want to, even close family such as grandma or grandpa. Encourage your child to feel safe and respected in their decision to deny physical affection to anyone they wish not to. This will reinforce the idea that their bodies are their own and that they always have the right to protect it.
If you’re looking for ways to start these discussions with younger children, there are several great children’s books that can help guide discussions about personal boundaries, body safety, and consent.
Once children get closer to their teenage years, these discussions may start to incorporate concepts of sexuality, online safety and peer pressure. More information on how to talk to teens about body safety can be found here.
Keep the conversation going
Family conversations about consent and body safety should be ongoing and consistent over the years. This will help children feel empowered and prepared. Look for natural opportunities to discuss these topics and respond to your child’s questions in a way that doesn’t make them feel embarrassed or ashamed. When conversations happen consistently and naturally, the more confident your child will feel about setting and stating their own boundaries.
WATCH FOR WARNINGS
There are physical, behavioral and emotional signs to look for in a child that may have been sexually abused. There are also warning signs to look for when it comes to an adult’s behavior around a child close to you. More information on these signs and behaviors can be found here.
If you are confronted with any of these issues or have additional questions about your child’s response to or questions about their bodies, consider speaking with your child’s physician. They will be able to differentiate which are age-appropriate and normal sexual behaviors or may see behaviors that are developmentally inappropriate and could be a sign of potential abuse.
THESE CONVERSATIONS CAN SAVE LIVES
These topics can feel heavy and difficult to broach with your child. Some caregivers may feel that talking to their children about these topics may put fear or inappropriate thoughts in their minds. But child safety experts and advocates continue to agree: empowering kids with confidence about their bodies from a young age can help prevent abuse from happening or continuing. Even though abuse prevention can’t always be seen, parents can feel confident that having these proactive conversations will only have a positive impact in their child’s life.
Sexual CHILD Abuse Statistics
The statistics of sexual child abuse show that it is a severe issue in the United States.
- 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
- Over 65,000 children were sexually abused in 2016.
- 8.6 % of reported child abuse cases were sexual abuse.
- 34% of people who sexually abuse a child are family members.
- 12.3% of girls were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape/victimization, and 30% of girls were between the ages of 11 and 17.
- 27.8% of boys were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape/victimization.
- 96% of people who sexually abuse children are male, and 76.8% of people who sexually abuse children are adults.
- 325,000 children are at risk of becoming victims of commercial child sexual exploitation each year.
- Caregiver alcohol or drug abuse is a child abuse risk factor putting kids at much higher risk for being abused.
- The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14 years old, and the average age for boys is 11 to 13 years old.
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References & Sources
- General safety concepts for kids
Family Safety Nights
What-if conversation starters
Sexual behaviors in kids
Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement (2000).