Statistics on child sexual abuse are terrifying for any parent. You’ve felt the vulnerability of this reality yourself.
Even worse, sexual predators are most often someone whom the child and their family trusts. Trusted people may be family members, daycare workers or babysitters, family friends, coaches, and even pastors and church staff.
You know the reality of child abuse, but what do you do with that frightening information? You can’t lock them in a safe room and be the only person who interacts with them. They must go to school, you must go to work. You long to trust your church, and you feel sick to think of your family and friends as potential predators.
If the people you trust can’t be trusted, then how are you supposed to protect your child?
Sexual abuse happens, but you’re not at helpless as you may feel.
There are ways you can proactively protect them. Teach your child and create a family culture so your child knows how to handle dangerous situations and so you can be fully engaged in their lives if a questionable situation arises.
You can protect your child from sexual abuse. Start by following these eight steps:
1. Use the correct names for their body parts.
You might have heard of this one before. Children should learn from an early age that they have a vulva/vagina and breasts or a penis. It might be embarrassing for your 3-year-old to yell “Mom, my vagina itches!” while in a crowded room at church, but it’s a small price to pay for how valuable it is for protecting your child.
Here’s why this matters:
They might not even understand what is happening to them. If they tell their teacher “Billy touched me down there,” their teacher might not know that your child is reporting abuse, but if they know how to name their body parts, adults will clearly know what’s going on.
Furthermore, different or incorrect names communicate a stigma around the body parts. Using common but inaccurate terms implies that these body parts are shameful and shouldn’t be talked about. A child will be much more likely to tell their parents what is going on with their private parts (itching, hurting, someone is touching them) if those body parts are talked about without hesitation and with proper names.
2. Practice touch consent in your family.
Your child does not owe affection to anyone, not even Grandma. Hugs, kisses, tickles, playful touch or wrestling- nothing should be done without your child’s consent. This is a very important step.
If your child knows that people (exceptions include parents helping with bathing/dressing or doctors when needed) do not touch them without their permission, then they will know it is wrong and will tell you when someone is touching them without their consent.
If you create a culture of touch consent in your family, then your child will expect others to practice consent.
This should extend to your child’s siblings and peers as well in order to prevent peer sexual abuse. Children should be taught that “we do not touch each other’s private parts” and “we stop when someone asks us to stop touching them.” This way, they know that it is wrong when someone does not respect their body boundaries.
3. No secrets rule. Not even “innocent” secrets.
Some books talk about teaching your child the difference between good secrets and bad secrets. Categorizing secrets can be very confusing for children, especially young ones.
Predators may groom children by getting them to keep “innocent” secrets (“Don’t tell your mom we got ice cream,” or, “We won’t tell your dad that we did more screen time.”) before they ask them to keep the bad ones. They test children to see which ones will keep ANY secret, then they use the secret against the child (“If you tell your mom I touched you, then I’ll tell her that you spent an hour more on the iPad.”).
Also, children have a very difficult time discerning bad secrets from good secrets. Your child should know that if anyone asks them to keep any kind of secret from you, then they should communicate that to you as soon as possible.
4. Keep the lines of communication open.
Create an environment where you kids feel safe to tell you anything- even things that will “get them in trouble.”
This may feel challenging because you have to balance consequences for unwanted behavior while also making your child feel safe. You can do this by getting into the habit of regularly asking them questions, taking seriously the things they take seriously, and disciplining in a way that does not feel scary to them. It seems a lot easier said than done!
Keep the line of communication open by always taking your child seriously. Ask questions whenever they tell you something so that they know they can bring anything to you.
Children are usually indirect whenever they report abuse to their parents. They are much more likely to say something like, “He’s mean,” “I don’t like playing with her,” or “They’re bad!” than tell you directly what is happening to them. They might not even say anything to you and instead stop liking a person out of the blue or not want to go to a certain place anymore.
Be inquisitive and follow up when your child tells you something like this rather than dismissing it as trivial or reprimanding them for being rude.
5. Adults don’t have to be blindly obeyed.
Teach your children to respect all people, not just adults. Teach them to listen when an adult tells them to do something. Teaching them healthy boundaries and respectful assertiveness is equally important.
This starts at home; create a culture in which you allow your children to respectfully say no to you. You can also have conversations with your child about when it is okay to say no to an adult, for example: touching your body without consent; asking you to keep a secret; asking you a question you don’t feel comfortable answering; etc.
6. Teach your child how to listen to their body.
For a child to understand if a situation or person makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, they need to know the signals their body sends them in unsafe or uncomfortable situations. Is their heart beating fast? Do they feel heavy in their chest or stomach? Are they getting sweaty? Regularly talking about emotions and the corresponding sensations in the body can be helpful.
7. Get your family, friends, and childcare workers on board.
It might seem daunting to tell your family that they can’t hug your child without asking first, but it is important for your child to experience touch consent from as many people in their lives as possible. To avoid hurt feelings, try phrasing your request as an invitation to join the team in preventing child abuse by practicing touch consent with your child.
Another reason this step is important: predators look for the most vulnerable child they can abuse without getting caught.
If a predator knows (because you invited them to join your team) that you teach your child correct vocabulary for their body, you practice consent and boundaries with touch, your child does not keep secrets, and they have been given permission to say no to an adult when they feel unsafe, then that predator is less likely to target your child. They know that your child is prepared and that you are aware and watching.
Check out two helpful resources at the end of this blog. One is a link to conversation starter cards to give to family, friends, and childcare workers that invite these people onto your team. The second is a website that sells a pack of eight different letters to give to family, teachers, other parents for sleepovers, babysitters, etc.
8. Read children’s books about body safety and consent.
There are so many to choose from! It is important to have regular conversations about body safety and consent with children and teens, so it might be helpful to have a few of these books on hand to cycle through. Here are some to get you started:
- I Said No! by Kimberly King
- God Made all of Me by Justin S. and Lindsey A. Holcomb
- Can I Give You a Squish? by Emily Neilson
- No Trespassing- This is My Body! by Pattie Fitzgerald
- Amazing You! by Dr. Gail Salts
- Consent (For Kids!): Boundaries, Respect, and Being in Charge of YOU! by Rachael Brian
- Train Your Dragon to Accept NO by Steve Herman
Take a look at the following resources to learn more about preventing sexual abuse from happening to your child. It is important to remember that if it does happen, it was not your fault. However, it is parents’ responsibility to reduce risk as much as possible. I hope that these tips and resources will help you feel empowered when it comes to protecting your child from sexual abuse!
Additional resources to help you protect your child from sexual abuse
- https://www.consentparenting.com/store – Here is where you can buy the letter templates to help get your family and friends on board. They have other helpful materials too- including child and teen T-shirts to tell the whole world not to touch without consent.
- https://parentingsafechildren.com/book/#cards – Here is where you can buy the cards that you can hand out to anyone inviting them to join your prevention team!
- Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse by Sandy Wurtele and Feather Berkower
Want to learn more?
Make an Appointment
Don’t wait to get your child the help she needs. Call and make an appointment with Mary Carol Damon today, 601-362-7020. Mary Carol specializes in working with children and teens. She will help you understand the risks of sexual abuse and know how to keep your child safe. If your child has experienced sexual abuse, she will help them heal.