How Can You Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse?
By Julie Medlin, Ph.D. & Steven Knauts, Ph.D.
Authors of Avoiding Sexual Dangers: A Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Child
As responsible parents, we want to protect our children from sexual abuse, but it’s hard to know how to actually do it. Our first instinct may be to keep them by our side all the time, but once our kids start to get older, this becomes impractical and not in the child’s best interest. So, we have to find a way to protect our children while still allowing them the room to grow. The good news is that there are four main steps you can take to protect your child:
STEP 1: Arming Your Child Against Sexual Abuse: This step involves teaching your child protective skills so they are less likely to become a target of abuse.
- Teach your child “Your body belongs to you.”
Help your child understand that they have a right to not be touched by others. In order to teach this, respect when your child doesn’t want to be touched, such as hugged or kissed. For example, avoid pressuring your child to give a goodnight kiss to a relative if the child doesn’t want to. By respecting your child’s feelings, you are teaching your child that they have the right to refuse unwanted touch. This can help your child be more assertive in refusing any unwanted touch.
- Educate your child about sexual abuse.
Explain to your child that there are private places on their body that others are not supposed to touch, except in certain circumstances, such as when they go to the doctor. Explain that it is wrong for adults and older children to sexually touch them, and that they will not get in trouble for telling about such touching. Be sure to teach your child specific words for their genitals so that your child is able to communicate clearly with you about sexual touching.
- Tell your child to never get in a car with anyone without your permission, and to never walk off with anyone without your permission.
- Make sure your child’s emotional needs are getting met.
Child molesters often target children who feel lonely, overlooked, or rejected, as well as those who do not have a close relationship with their parents. Child molesters may assume the role of a “special friend” to the child in order to get close to the child and then exploit the child.
STEP 2: Avoid high-risk settings. You can reduce your child’s risk of being molested by avoiding situations where abuse is more likely to occur.
Avoid situations where your child is alone with an adult.
This is recommended since 80% of sexual abuse cases occur when a child is alone with an adult. Given this, you can significantly reduce your child’s risk of being molested by reducing the amount of time your child spends alone with an adult. Of course this is not always possible, but when you can, choose group situations and organizations whose youth activities do not involve a child being alone with an adult. For those activities that do involve such contact, make sure that the organization runs criminal background checks and requires professional references for the adults who work with children. If your child is alone with an adult, you can reduce the risk of sexual abuse by having this contact occur in a public setting where others can observe their interactions. You can also tell the adult that you will stop by periodically, at different times, which lets the adult know that their time with the child is not completely private. In addition, you can give your child a cell phone and tell your child to call you if needed. You should also periodically check in with your child before and after their time spent alone with an adult, in order to see if your child had any negative feelings about the contact.
Avoid situations where your child is alone with an older child who is 3 or more years older.
Most parents don’t think about the risk posed by older children, but over a third of all child molestations are committed by teens. Given this, it is best to avoid situations where your child is mixing with much older children and there is little adult supervision.
STEP 3: Look for warning signs of a possible child molester. Before molesting a child, child molesters usually first develop a relationship with the child, gain the child’s trust, and then slowly begin violating the child’s boundaries. This process is called “grooming.” Parents can learn how to spot grooming behaviors so that they can intervene before any abuse occurs. Signs of grooming include when an adult or much older child:
Often tries to gain access to children
Child molesters try to find ways to be alone with children so they often spend much of their free time around children rather than with people their own age. They may offer to do things that most adults and teens would not offer, such as offering to babysit for free or offering to take your child on outings or overnight trips.
Treats children in an unusually special manner
Child molesters often try to gain the child’s trust by buying gifts for the child, giving the child extra attention, and treating the child as a peer or friend rather than as a child. Some child molesters choose professions that allow them to have frequent contact with children, such as that of a teacher or coach. They then overstep the normal boundaries of their role, by doing thing such as giving the child their personal cell phone number, texting the child, or offering to take the child on special trips.
Displays poor boundaries with children
Child molesters usually begin “grooming” the child by violating the child’s boundaries in subtle ways, such as by walking in on the child when the child is undressing or in the bathroom. Other boundary violations include making sexual comments about the child’s body or physical development, or touching the child even though the child does not want it, such as by kissing, tickling, or wrestling. Child molesters may also try to pique the child’s curiosity about sexual matters by leaving pornography within view or by leaving doors open when showering or engaging in sexual activity.
STEP 4: Respond to any warning signs displayed by your child
Children who are being molested often show changes in their mood or behavior such as sudden bedwetting, moodiness, tantrums, a drop in grades, or sexual behaviors. If you notice such changes in your child, talk to your child so you can better understand what is causing the changes. If you believe your child may have been sexually abused, then take your child to a doctor or mental health professional.
By following these four steps, you can significantly reduce the chance that your child will be sexually abused.
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