Take Steps to Reduce Your Child's Sexual Abuse Risk
This summer, whatever your child will be doing - camps, swimming, ukulele lessons, sleepover with friends, starting a first job as a young teen, or travelling on their own as a young adult, you as their parent or guardian can do specific things to help increase their safety.
You may think your child is too young or already too old for sexual abuse prevention. Not true. Children of all ages can be targeted for abuse. And our children, whether they are infants or well on their way to living on their own, are safer when parents and caregivers take the time to learn about sexual abuse and its warning signs.
Prevention is a combination of education about child sexual abuse, noticing and responding to inappropriate or illegal behaviors, and safety planning. This article will focus on steps most useful for younger children. For information more specific to sexual abuse and assault prevention for teens and young adults, contact the Advocacy Center by email @ email@example.com or call their education department @ (607)277-3203 or 24-hour hotline @ (607)277-5000.
Identify inappropriate and risk-signaling behaviors
Parents and professionals who work with children know that most children at various ages are curious about their bodies and sexuality. This is an expected part of growing up. Some sexual behaviors between and among children, however, are inappropriate, coercive or abusive, or illegal. In fact, according to the US justice department as much as 40% of sexual abuse cases of minors involve children or teens who sexually offend against their peers or younger children. As alarming as this information can seem, it also gives us important prevention knowledge. By learning how to notice and respond to these behaviors by children and teens early on, we can help prevent sexual abuse and intervene to reduce the likelihood of children become sexually abused and/or abusive adults.
Recognizing warning behaviors in adults who sexually abuse children is equally important (60% of current sexual abuse cases). It is not unusual after a news story about an individual who was arrested for child sexual abuse or child pornography charges, to hear words like, “We are shocked. That teacher seemed so nice.” or “All the kids liked that coach.” Toss out the idea that people who sexually abuse children look and act differently than you do.
People who sexually abuse children often go to great lengths to appear trustworthy and kind, not only to the children they target but also to their parents and other adults around them (a process called “grooming.”) They look for situations where they can have easy access to children. Sometimes, they do this by choosing work that will give them “cover” at schools, youth groups, sports teams, and other places where children live and play. Sometimes, they work to establish relationships with adults first so they will eventually gain access to their children. Most are considered by those around them to be loyal friends, good employees and responsible members of the community.
It helps to know that the vast majority of sexual abuse (but not all) happens when adults and children are in one-on-one situations. You can reduce the risk, therefore, by reducing opportunity. Carefully consider any situation that places your child alone with an adult in an unsupervised situation.
You can also watch for behaviors in adults that have been identified as warning signs of grooming or abuse. Remember that these behaviors, when taken alone or together, don’t predict sexual abuse. They are however, an indication that you may need to ask more questions.
- Finds ways to be alone with a child or teen like taking the child for a car ride, arranging a special trip, or frequently offering to baby sit;
- Ignores a child’s verbal or physical cues that he or she does not want to be hugged, kissed or tickled;
- Doesn’t respect a child’s or teen’s privacy in the bathroom or bedroom;
- Gives a child or teen money or gifts for no particular occasion;
- Discusses or asks a child or teen to discuss sexual experiences or feelings;
- Doesn’t appear to have adult friends and prefers to spend free time interacting with children and teenagers who are not his/her own;
- Views child pornography. (In addition to being an important behavioral sign, possessing, viewing and/or selling child pornography is a criminal offense and should be reported.)
- Seems to have a different special child or teen friend of a particular age or appearance from year to year
Know how to respond effectively
The two main goals of Enough Abuse Tompkins County are to 1) prevent children from developing sexually abusive behaviors by understanding child sexual development and responding appropriately and to 2) prevent adults from sexually abusing children, about 60% of today’s current sexual abuse cases. A core piece of the Enough Abuse workshops is discussing how participants would respond to different scenarios. Knowing more about child sexual abuse and potentially problematic behaviors is not enough to protect children if we are unsure or unable to respond to them. Following will be steps parents can take when choosing summer programs and steps they can take at home.
Choosing summer camps and programs
Even though it may be difficult to think about your child being at risk for sexual abuse, most summer camps and programs are committed to protecting the youth in their care. You as a parent can increase safety for all youth by asking programs about their policies and practices on child sexual abuse prevention. Don’t be shy about asking questions. Successful programs know that asking about their camp policies and procedures is a part of your job as a parent.
- How are employees and volunteers screened?
- What guidelines or codes of conduct are there about interactions between staff, teen interns or junior counselors, and campers?
- Do all camp staff get training on sexual abuse prevention?
- How are interactions between adults, teens and children monitored?
- How do they handle inappropriate behavior or allegations of sexual abuse?
- What information will I as a parent get about any inappropriate behaviors or allegations that involve this program or my child?
Family Safety Plans
The goal of a family safety plan is to have a home environment that can help protect your family. In the same way having a fire extinguisher in your kitchen may help you remember the risks and will help you respond should something flare up. We don’t mean tell your children to not talk with strangers. In fact, we know that in most cases children are sexually abused by someone the child and their family knew and trusted. Three things that increase a child’s ability to respond to sexually inappropriate or abusive behavior are: having a clear understanding of their right to personal privacy, having the language to explain things that happen in their lives, and being comfortable asking questions.
All members in a family have rights to privacy. Depending on a child’s age these boundaries are adapted to give them more privacy while dressing, bathing, or online. When someone does not respect these rights, an adult enforces them: this reinforces the ideas of personal space and privacy. In a similar way, children need to understand that saying ‘no’ is a way to set a boundary that needs to be respected. Yes, this may be problematic through the ‘terrible twos’ but as a teen your child will need to be able to say no to peer pressures and this takes practice. This doesn’t mean let your child decide everything. It does mean it is okay for a child to say “I don’t want you to tickle me” or “I don’t want to sit in your lap.”
Just as you teach your child “head, shoulders, knees and toes,” they need to know the proper words for their genitals. This gives them knowledge about their bodies and the words to talk about the time someone called their penis a lollipop and wanted to lick it. Children and teens alike respond to risky situations better when they are not confused or so shocked they freeze. They also benefit greatly if they can talk about uncomfortable or inappropriate situations with you afterwards. For this they need both the words and to feel okay asking you about confusing or embarrassing things. Be an “ask-able parent” as much as possible. For parents this means learning how to talk about both sexual abuse and healthy sexuality both.
For more information contact:
Enough Abuse Campaign Program Assistant
Advocacy Center of Tompkins County
24 hour hotline 607.277.5000
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