The sex abuse cases that you see on the news or hear about are just the tip of the iceberg. Even as the magnitude of Penn State sex abuse case hit the news, I knew it was only a matter of time before more schools would become embroiled in similar crisis.
Unfortunately, my predictions were accurate. The Citadel admitted to failing to take action against a student accused of inappropriate behavior with a boy a summer camp and now Syracuse University has fired assistant coach Bernie Fine amid allegations that he molested at least two ball boys.
While hearing about these stories in the media horrifies virtually everyone, most parents still sit back and think, “This happens to other people, not my child.” This denial is understandable – it’s too painful to even think that sex abuse could happen to one’s own child. But the sad reality is that it is happening all too frequently.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 1 out of 5 girls and 1 out of 10 boys will be sexually abused during their childhood. To put that in perspective, in a class of 20 students, at least 4 will have been sexually abused by the time they graduate from high school.
What Can We as Parents Do to Protect Our Children?
First, we can’t assume our children, even our older children, understand sex abuse. Understandably, it’s a difficult topic to bring up, but as parents we must.
Using recent events as a teachable moment, I started to discuss the topic of sex abuse with my extremely bright nine-year old. I was shocked to find that she didn’t understand that if someone – even someone she knew – touched her genitals it was against the law.
We sometimes assume our kids know more than they do and it’s critical that we teach them what to do if someone tries to sexually abuse them and look for signs if they already have been abused.
Start Conversations about Sex Abuse Early and Often
A child as young as three-years-old needs to understand when touching is inappropriate. Discussing their body should be treated just like a conversation about any other safety issue and discussions about touching their body should never be considered “dirty” or “bad.”
It’s important to use the appropriate words when speaking to children so they gain a healthy body image. “Private parts” or “special hug” could mean something different to a child. Be clear in the parts of his or her body that should not be touched. This isn’t a conversation to have once; it needs to be revisited as your child matures.
Seek Out Educational Resources on Sex Abuse
Let’s face it – this is one of the most uncomfortable conversations you can have with your kids but thankfully, it’s not something you need to tackle alone. Take advantage of the educational resources available to parents.
Jill Starishevsky, a New York prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes, has written a book My Body Belongs To Me (www.mybodybelongstome.com) which teaches children about inappropriate touching and can be used as a guide for caregivers and parents to discuss abuse with their children.
Additionally, the website Stop It Now! (www.stopitnow.org) is a great resource with guidebooks, the latest research and treatment options.
Teach Your Child the Courage to Talk about Sex Abuse
Sex abuse occurs because, even though the child feels uncomfortable and knows it’s wrong, they’re too scared to say anything.
Remember, this isn’t about strangers. Statistics have shown that in the vast majority of child sex abuse cases it is someone that the child knows, either a family member, friend or trusted adult, whom they have been taught to respect.
The abuser will tell the child that if they tell anyone about the abuse they won’t be believed, that the abuser (someone they care about) will have to go to jail, that their family will break up or that the abuser will hurt the child’s mother.
Your child must be told by you that they should never believe these comments and that you will always believe them if they come to you with this information. Suggest to them other people they could tell if they were abused such as a teacher, another family member or even the police.
Kids need to understand that most adults are not going to abuse them but that it is not appropriate for any adult to ask to be their friend or keep secrets. If anyone makes them feel bad, uncomfortable or scared with their words or actions they should tell you immediately.
Even if you have had conversations with your kids, abuse can still occur. Parents need to be willing to consider upsetting possibilities – that the abuser could be a stepparent, brother or grandfather. It’s also important to remember that the abuse often occurs in a familiar, safe place such as their home, school, afterschool club or the abuser’s home.
Watch for signs that could indicate your child has been abused:
- Sleep problems – Nightmares that are frightening or sexual in nature
- Changes in eating habits – Dieting excessively, refusing to eat, trouble swallowing
- Behavior issues – Mood swings, rages, anger, depression, withdrawal
- Suddenly reluctant to be alone with a certain person or go somewhere familiar
- Acts out sexual behavior with stuffed animals, writes or draws sexual images, asks other children to act out sexual scenarios or becomes sexually promiscuous
- A regression in older children to bed-wetting or thumb sucking. For younger children, new phrases for their body parts and refusal to take off clothes at appropriate times such as bathing, using the toilet or changing for bed.
- For teens, self-mutilation, running away, and suicide attempts.
If you are at all concerned, talk to your child immediately and explain that nothing they did was wrong. Remind them that it’s your job to keep them safe and they can trust you to protect them if something has happened. Immediately have your child checked by your pediatrician and keep any potential evidence for the authorities.