Sexual Abuse in Children
Child sexual abuse and molestation is a heavy conversation topic, but certainly one that needs to be discussed openly. A significant number of children are sexually abused by the time they reach adolescence. The actual rate of sexual abuse among children is unknown as a result of under-reporting, due to intense secrecy and feelings of shame. In fact, most cases of child sexual abuse and molestation never reach government authorities.
As much as we want to protect our children from sexual predators, we need to empower them to protect themselves as well. It is a well-known fact that the majority of sex offenders are individuals who know the child well. The sexual offender can be ANYONE — male or female — a teacher, coach, neighbor, uncle, parent and trusted family friend, including siblings.
Let’s also clarify that the experience of sexual abuse includes a wide range of behaviors, from sexually-inappropriate comments, jokes and touching, to oral sex and penetration.
How I Foster Awareness and Help Empower My Children
In my opinion, as a mother and psychologist, we can never exercise “too much” precaution and education when it comes to child sexual abuse. As long as your efforts to educate and empower your children do not create pathological anxiety and fear in your child, having open conversations about sexual abuse is essential. Below, I share what I normally do to protect my kids from sexual predators and sexual abuse experiences:
1. I clearly define what are their private areas
Helping your children learn which areas of their bodies are private is very important. In general, we tend to limit private areas to sexual or reproductive organs (e.g., the penis, vagina or breast). I personally like to include the mouth and lips when I talk to my kids about their private areas. I acknowledge there are cultural differences in kissing on the lips as a way of greeting. Some cultures are more open to this. I am personally more conservative in this area — I discourage the kids from greeting family members or friends with a kiss on the lips. Therefore, I include the mouth and lips as a private area in my conversation with them.
2. I avoid cute names for their private areas
One of the reasons why we use cute names to refer sexual parts in our bodies is because it helps diffuse the anxiety it provokes when using their proper names. Growing up, my mother referred to my vagina as “la cuca,” which is also the female counterpart of “el cuco” — “the monster.” A powerful message.
The more comfortable you feel talking about your child’s vagina, vulva, penis and breasts, the more comfortable your child will feel talking about their body parts with you! So, at home, my daughters have vaginas, vulva and breasts, and my sons have penises and scrotums.
3. I clearly tell my children who has permission to shower them and help them clean their private areas
If your children are being raised with the help of a child care provider, or with family members, it is important that you clearly identify the people you want your children to cautiously trust. If your child is not potty trained and is in pre-school, there might be several teacher’s assistants responsible for cleaning, wiping, changing pull-ups or underwears. Find out who these people are and know their names, so that your children know who they are. Kids should always know who has your permission to clean their private areas.
4. I clearly define what is an inappropriate or sexual abuse behavior
I use very clear language when discussing inappropriate sexual behaviors. I use the words: “touch,” “rub” “massage” and “kiss” when discussing inappropriate sexual behaviors. The more you accurately label the range of sexual behaviors, the more likely your children will be able to recognize the offensive action and tell you about it.
5. I Point out other sexually inappropriate behaviors
It is important for children understand that a sexually inappropriate behavior can also include inappropriate jokes or sexual insinuations. Some parents and other family members make sexually inappropriate jokes in front of their children, showing very little insight into how children experience these moments. Avoid making age-inappropriate sexual jokes in front of your children.
6. I remind my children that anyone can be an offender
Unmask who the potential predator is. In my long list of people, I include school teachers, family members (uncles, cousins, siblings, grand-parents, parents), religious figures, neighbors, coaches, and babysitters, including women. I especially focus on people who have power, and individuals kids are taught to respect. The point is not to instill fear, but rather awareness.
7. I talk about sexual abuse like any other day-to-day conversation topic
My conversations with the kids on sexual abuse are very laid back. There is no need to make an appointment with your kids to talk about sexual abuse. These conversations are part of real life — as normal as talking about taking a trip in the summer, going to college, or talking about Monarch butterflies.
8. I check-in with my kids from time to time
I am known for asking my kids, out of the blue: “Is any one at school making you feel uncomfortable? Touching your vagina/penis? Making you do something you don’t want to do?” I also ask these questions when the kids spend a long day at a friend’s house.
9. I describe the common scenarios of sexual abuse in children
While you do want your children to grow up feeling safe and trusting the world around them, the reality is that the world is not always a safe place. I go over scenarios that are typical of sexual offenders. I talk about the nice guys on the street. I warn them about teachers or school staff members who might ask them to come with them to another room or closet. I talk about family members who might hug too tight or tickle them in inappropriate place. Yes, it sounds like too much information, but it could save your child from the next predator.
10. I discuss the tactics sexual offenders use to scare their victims
My husband and I always remind our kids that sexual predators will say the most threatening things to scare children into not talking about a sexual abuse experience. They also use guilt and pity as a form of manipulation. Use as many situations as possible, to help your children identify a predator’s tactic.
What do you do or say to empower your children against sexual offenders?