How to Protect Kids from Sexual Abuse
This is not a fun article. It’s on a topic we’d all like to believe is rare, would never happen to our kids or anyone we know.
While child sexual abuse isn’t common, it’s also not as rare as people would like to think. Roughly 10% of kids under age 18 have been sexually abused; that’s 1 in 10 children around you. It’s worth being vigilant; sexual abuse in childhood can, unsurprisingly, have lifelong effects on physical and mental health.
But how do you do protect your child from sexual predators? With help from the World Childhood Foundation, we break down how you can protect kids from sexual abuse and how to teach your child to protect themselves. But first, let’s talk about what child sexual abuse actually is and who does it, because you can’t prevent or fight what you don’t know.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child predation includes forcing, coercing, persuading a child into any sexual act – this could range from groping while clothed, to nudity, to an actual sex act. It also includes exposing a child to pornography or voyeurism, communicating in a sexual manner with the child (often over the phone or online), and sharing or creating any media that depicts children sexually.
According to the World Childhood Foundation, child sexual abuse is a crime of opportunity, not of spontaneity. Child predators are generally people the family trusts or actual family members. Child predators can be male or female, rich or middle class or poor, educated or uneducated, adults or children themselves (about 40% of the time, sexual abusers are older or larger children). In other words, it’s not necessarily the household help or the unmarried uncle; it really could be anybody. As a result, sexual abuse victims can also be anyone — male or female children are both at risk; and children of any age – only 35% of victims are age 11 or younger.
How to protect kids from sexual abuse?
How to protect kids from sexual abuse boils down to two things: Educating children about their bodies and appropriate touch, and minimizing opportunity for child predators.
What to talk to kids about
Parents can start talking to kids as early as age 2 about the following things, which will help empower them to recognize and report the earliest warning signs of sexual abuse.
- Teach them what it means to be “uncomfortable.” As early as 2 to 3 children can understand when they are comfortable or uncomfortable, if parents help them put the word to the feeling. This helps them to be in tune with their feelings and identify iffy or bad situations in the future. Review this any time the child is in a new situation, like starting daycare, visiting a new friend’s house, or starting school.
- Teach proper names for body parts. Teaching kids the proper names for their body parts gives them the vocabulary to talk about them — a critical ability, if they need to tell parents where someone has touched them.
- Teach kids what private parts are and the difference between good touch and bad touch. Telling children no one should ever touch them in the area a bathing suit covers helps them visualize and understand the parts of their body particularly off limits to others — although, parents can also explain their whole body is private and they decide who touches it and who doesn’t. You can also explain that other people have private parts, and even if they invite the child to touch, the child shouldn’t. Help the child understand the difference between, say, bath time and other times.
- Teach consent. Tell kids they have the right to say “no” to unwanted or uncomfortable touch. Never force them to give hugs or kisses or any other physical affection; it sends the message they do not have control over their bodies.
- Explain a secret can be harmful and they shouldn’t keep a secret to themselves. Abusers frame their abuse as a secret the child must keep. Start explaining early — by age four — that secrets can be harmful and the child should always tell a parent if someone asks them to keep a secret.
- Help kids identify trusted adults in school and other settings, like daycare or a friend’s home. Parents cannot be with their children 24/7, thought they might like to. Empower children by helping them identify adults they can go to for safety and confide in — perhaps a teacher, a day care worker, a friend’s trusted parent.
- Teach kids about sex. The World Childhood Foundation recommends teaching kids about sex by the age of 8 (if not sooner), so they know what it is and know it is something only adults do together. This helps them recognize inappropriate behaviour in relation to themselves.
- Play the ‘What If’ game. Posing scenarios to children and asking them what they would do in the situation helps them have an arsenal of good responses in the event someone attempts abuse. Child predators tend to work up to the abuse gradually; the idea is to catch the attempt early, before the child experiences trauma. For example, “What if someone shows you photos of people who aren’t wearing any clothes — what would you do?” (Teach the child to confide in parents or another trusted adult they’ve identified.)
- Encourage questions. This keeps the lines of communication open. The best thing a child could do is feel comfortable going to a parent and asking, “So-and-so did XYZ — is that OK?”
Minimize opportunity for child predators
- Choose group situations, with more than one adult supervising. Child predators seek to isolate children.
- Anticipate situational risks — check out the environment for hidden or secluded areas; correct or avoid.
- Avoid one-on-one situations between your child and older kids; if using a baby-sitter or nanny, inform him or her that your child knows what sexual abuse is.
How to watch out for child predators?
Child sexual abuse rarely happens on a whim; it’s usually the culmination of a process called ‘grooming,’ that is, drawing a child into a secret, sexual relationship. This is awful, considering this person is often someone parents trust, who is integrated into the household. But there’s a silver lining: Grooming involves a fairly standard group of actions that parents can watch for and arm kids to recognize.
Signs of grooming
- Seeks or creates opportunities to be alone with the child
- Gains a position of trust and esteem within the family or the community
- Gives special attention, outings or gifts to the child
- Has a special child friend, or has had a series of them
- Fills unmet needs or roles for the child and the family
- Treats the child older than their actual age
- Touches in increasingly intimate or sexual ways
- Uses blame, secrecy or threats for control over the child
- Looks at pornography or sexual media with the child
For more help, check out the World Childhood Foundation’s app.