We have come a long way in talking about subjects that used to seem too difficult or private or uncomfortable to discuss — suicide, addictions, domestic violence — to name a few.
Why have we kept so quiet about sexual abuse of children? Maybe we think that talking about it with children will be too disturbing or scary to them. But talking about it can actually help to keep them safe.
According to DefendInnocence.org, one in five children is sexually abused before age 18 in the United States. That amounts to about 1,035,000 youth who are abused each year. About 80 percent are abused by someone who the child knows. At least 20 percent of the time, the perpetrators are family members.
“Clear communication is the cornerstone of effective prevention,” according to information on StopItNow.org.
Making sure that adults and other children understand the expectations that kids will have of them will help to keep kids safe.
Stop It Now provides tips on its website for teaching kids about others’ behavior toward them. These include using concrete examples of situations that could happen, modeling healthy boundaries such as helping them to find a way to say hello or goodbye to a family member if hugging makes them uncomfortable.
Talking to children about touch that makes them feel uncomfortable is also important, as well as explaining about tricks, such as bribes. It’s also helpful to involve other adults by letting children know that there are adults they can talk to, in addition to parents, if something is bothering them.
Parents initiating conversations about healthy boundaries and answering questions accurately will let children know that their parents are approachable in case something does happen.
Reading children’s books about this subject is a great way to share information and ignite a conversation. Doing a simple Internet search will produce lists of books that can be helpful, including books about secrets, speaking up if something happens and inappropriate touching.
Helping children to understand the difference between safe and unsafe secrets can also help to prevent abuse or other dangerous situations. A safe secret is one that will eventually be told and can be referred to as a surprise, rather than a secret, according to Stop It Now. An example would be a surprise party or a birthday present.
An unsafe secret is one that is meant to never be told. Secrets exclude others, often because the information will cause problems or cause people to be upset. When keeping secrets with just one other person becomes routine, the child involved becomes more vulnerable to abuse.
Signs that we, as adults, can watch for include inappropriate behavior between adults and children and between older children and younger children. Staying on top of children’s use of technology is also critical. Internet, email, instant messaging or texting, gaming sites, webcam use, social media sites and apps and any other form of communication using technology are ways that children can get into dangerous situations.
Above all, adults should teach children to speak up when something makes them uncomfortable, scared or confused. Children should know that they can go to trusted adults, even when they are feeling afraid or embarrassed. Make a list of trusted adults with children so they understand who they can talk to. Let’s open up about sexual abuse and give children tools to stay safe.