Sexual abuse has to be on the top list of every parents worst nightmare.
We all want to prevent it but so often we don’t know how. Often, we either stick our head in the sand and hope for the best or go overboard and our children grow up in unnecessary isolation and fear.
Over the last 10 years I have sought to read, ask questions and find strategies for my own family. Below are 6 practical strategies that guide us.
In sharing this I would like to point out two things:
First, I am not an expert, family counsellor, or social worker. This is simply one Mom sharing with other parents… I would encourage you to use this list as a catalyst to get other input and form a strategy for your own family.
Second, these steps are based on generalisations. There is an exception to every rule. They simply aim to reduce likelihood, not guarantee an outcome. There is nothing any of us can do to 100% guarantee the outcome. We all know good families who do all the “right things” and disaster has struck. It is not the parents or the child’s fault. These generalisations are also not meant to categorise any one type of person or behaviour. I know that not all men are child abusers and not every women who gives a “pet name” to a child is out to molest that child. Generalisations are just that… generally true and sometimes not true.
Ok, here we go… 6 ways our family guards against sexual abuse.
1. Talk to your children about sex, openly, honestly and often (read my full post on this). The biggest foundation for sexual safety is kids who are know about sex, can talk about sex and understand the boundaries of sexuality. Key in this is using appropriate and accurate words for sex and the body. Sex offenders generally don’t say, “I want to touch your penis and scrotum”. Predators use euphemisms and pet names. This should feel weird and unusual to your child… and your child feeling weird is actually positive and important as we will see in the other steps.
Our family culture of talking openly, honestly and often about sex is a key foundation before all other steps.
2. Boundaries first, discernment second. Parents often talk about “going with their gut”. I call that discernment. Discernment is to identify possible danger through intuition. Discernment is so important but it shouldn’t be the foundation of your family strategy.
This is our family mantra: our boundaries protect us, not our discernment. Discernment is good. But the foundation is boundaries. Why? because the reality is that your discernment is wrong much of the time. Case study #1: we teach our kids to be afraid of strangers but not afraid of family or close friends. The reality: stats say overwhelmingly the opposite. Every study shows that, in general, strangers are safe and family/close friends are not. Most studies say that 80% of sexual abuse happens by someone a child knows and spends frequent time with. Yet, we continue to warn our children about strangers.
This is not to invoke fear but to simply show us that in the case of sexual abuse, discernment is not our #1 tool, boundaries are. Discernment is then appropriately worked into the framework of your boundaries.
4 Practical Safeguards:
On the above foundation of 1. Talking to children openly, honestly and often about sex and 2. Boundaries first, Discernment second. Here are four simple and practical things we do.
1. We never leave children with a male. This includes: male adults, male youth (possibly the worst), male relatives. We personally make an exception with grandfathers but only because we both approve. This is the only exception we make as a family. No male babysitters (unless he is with a woman and never alone with our child). We do not make exceptions to this rule.
This safeguard is especially relevant in era of online porn use. Do you know what the 2nd most searched term is for porn in America? “Teen”. Yes, you read that right, “Teen”. That means that millions upon millions of men are getting turned on by under-age girls and boys.
One counsellor that I read (who specialised in re-habilitating sex offenders) said the #1 thing he does to protect his children is to not allow them to be babysat by men or teenage boys… even teenage siblings. He felt that the mix of porn use and puberty was too toxic (and saw that affirmed in his daily job). Add to this, many families are blended from 2nd or 3rd marriages… so a teenager could be babysitting a younger sibling that is not his blood-relative. This can make the lines even more blurry for him.
I do understand that many are abused by women… I don’t want to belittle that. But, the reality is that an overwhelming amount of sexual abuse happens by men. Most men are fine and safe… but our boundaries guide us in this, not our discernment of which men we deem to be safe and which we suspect not safe.
No male babysitters, ever.
When my boys go to a friends house, I simply ask, “who will be there with them?”. I then kindly request that the Mom is always present and that our boys are not left with the Dad only. It is awkward but an awkwardness that I’m willing to deal with.
2. Avoid one-on-one situations. This includes one child and one adult, one child and one child, one youth and one youth. This is called “minimising opportunity”. Sexual abuse happens in isolated places. When those situations are avoided, the chances of abuse happening goes way down.
Make every effort to ensure all outings are observable by an adult. It’s as simple as insisting a bedroom door remains open when friends are over. That an adult doesn’t take your child off with just the two of them. Ask kids to use the bathroom one at a time instead of all going in together. In our neighborhood the kids are all playing together ALL THE TIME (which is great!). But, we have one simple and clear rule: our sons are not allowed to go in to people’s homes, garages or any private space. Simple for them to understand and it provides huge safety.
3. Avoid “special relationships” In sexual abuse, often a special relationship is developed. It can be small things but important to take note of. Look for behaviours that make the relationship “special” or “exclusive”. For example, insist people use your child’s actual name. Social workers I talk to confirmed that in the majority of cases, a sexual abuser had a special name for that child. This is not a friend walking up to your child and saying, “Hey dude!”. I’m referring to a pet-name that is used consistently and exclusively. This act is an act of ownership, building trust and exclusivity in the relationship.
Giving gifts can be another issue. Gifts on birthdays and holidays is appropriate. But a grown man consistently buying gifts for a young girl “just because you are special” is inappropriate. We look out for these types of things.
4. Strangers or Creeps?: In general, 80% of sexual abuse happens by someone a child/youth knows. Therefore, warning our children about strangers is not as helpful as we believe it is. I actually encouraged my child to talk to strangers if they ever got lost and separated from me… studies show that children who do this find their parents quickly and safely.
Instead, talk to children about “people that make you feel icky” or “people that make you feel uncomfortable”.
Show clearly that if someone makes you feel that way, 1) tell Mom and Dad and 2) this will always be respected by Mom and Dad. Kids often have a good radar for someone that makes them feel uncomfortable but they have never been encouraged to voice this. They are taught to run from strangers. Rather, I want my child to tell me of the neighbourhood friend that they just don’t feel comfortable to be around. They don’t need to be able to explain this… if they get that creepy feeling, that’s is something to tell Mom and Dad. My oldest son has done exactly this and we were so grateful even if we will never know what we avoided.
Encourage your children to know they can say who makes them feel “icky” even if it is a friend or beloved family member. Studies show that fewer than 30% of parents had talked to their kids about sexual abuse. Even then, most failed to mention that the abuser might be an adult friend or family member. Encourage them that if a close friend or family member makes a comment, gives a gift or has an interaction that gives them an “icky” feeling they should tell Mom or Dad.
So there you have it, the 6 basic things that we do to protect our kids. There is so much more that could be said!
What steps of wisdom have you implemented in your family?