Date: January 1, 2012
Question: We have three children ranging in age from 4 to 10. We have struggled with how to talk with them about sexual predators. We want them to be prepared and protected, but not worry too much about the safety of their world. Do you have suggestions?
Answer: You have sensitively posed a dilemma facing all parents. Sexual abuse is a substantial problem, with confirmed reports of around 80,000 per year. The incidence is undoubtedly much higher, since children do not always divulge the abuse and many situations of actual abuse cannot be legally substantiated. However real the danger is, children's healthy development also requires that they trust that their world is safe and protected. The following advice helps balance these competing demands.
Talk to children about proper use of bodies
Starting with children as young as 4, you can tell them that their private areas are for themselves, their parents and their doctor to help them take care of. Since abuse sometimes involves forcing a child to conduct acts upon another's private area, you can also tell them that another's private areas, whether children or adults, are not for them. You can also say that they should not allow anyone to touch their body in any way that makes them feel funny or bad, but be aware that many sexual activities may not feel that way to a child, especially at first. Also, not all touching is abuse; children sometimes explore each other's bodies, and such childhood explorations, when occasional, limited and without coercion, are entirely normal.
Also let your children know that they should obey grown-ups such as teachers, relatives and babysitters who are in charge unless they ask children to do something that does not make sense or seems wrong to them. Again, find a balance between encouraging respect for authority with their right to use their own judgment. Children understand the difference between defiance or misbehavior and refusing to go along with something on the basis of obeying their conscience.
Use your own best judgment
Most studies indicate that children are likely to be abused by someone in the family or well known to the family. Abuse from strangers is much less common. For this reason, trust your own instincts. If you are uncomfortable about any child or adult who is in your child's life, pay attention to these feelings. You can't be certain you are correct, but providing oversight in situations where you have concerns is part of your protective responsibility to your child.
Maintain good communication
You cannot, and probably do not want to, prepare your child for every possible kind of abusive situation. Furthermore, even properly prepared children may not be able to fend off sexual predators. Accomplished predators are skilled at slowly seducing children in ways they may not realize until it is much too late.
The toxic impact of sexual abuse can be reduced or even eliminated if children tell their parents about the abuse, parents believe and comfort them, and professional help is obtained. With this in mind, we believe that the most important way parents can protect their children from sexual abuse is to foster open, trusting and supportive communication with their children about all aspects of their emotional development. With open communication established, children will feel they can go to their parents with any concern or event — hopefully before it progresses very far.
Establishing strong parent child communication requires parents to respect their children. If children feel respected, they will be able to have the courage to reveal any abuse, despite any confusion, guilt or shame they might be feeling. The following helps build strong parent-child communication:
- Believe your children and assume, until proven otherwise, that they are telling the truth. Of course children make up tales or exaggerate sometimes, and they should be corrected when they do.
- Understand your child's point of view even when discipline is necessary.
- Avoid shaming your child. Saying such things as, "How many times have I told you?" "When will you ever learn?" "When will you get it through your head?" or "What is wrong with you?" induces shame in a child. Children who have become overly sensitized to shame are less likely to confide situations about which they feel ashamed, rightly or wrongly.
- The best way to encourage respect for bodies is for you to respect your children's bodies. Physical violence of any sort, including corporal punishment, sends the wrong message to children about their rights to own and protect their body from the desires of others, whether that desire is the benign wish to teach a lesson or the malignant wish for sexual gratification.
As much as you might wish that it were otherwise, you cannot protect your children to the extent that you would hope. However, with prudent discussion, proper positioning of respect for authority and strong parent-child communication, you will be able to significantly reduce the already small chance that sexual abuse will impact your child's life.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. To submit a question, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. This month's question may be a composite or illustration of parents' concerns.