Those who experience sexual abuse as a child have to learn how to live with its many long-lasting effects. Those who have not had this experience may struggle to fully understand its impact. For all of us who care for children, it is worth our time and attention to be vigilant and informed.
You are likely familiar with some of the statistics regarding the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse; 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused or molested before the age of 18. If you are a parent, you likely endeavor to do everything in your power to protect your children from this experience. It can also be unsettling to think about children with adults in their lives who may not know how predominant this issue is. For instance, in 90% of childhood sexual abuse cases, abusers are individuals known by their victims; 60% of these children are abused by individuals known and trusted by their family.
We are so quick to teach our children about “stranger danger,” but we often fail to protect them from the danger that can come from those they know. These predators look like you and me and come in the form of a family member, friend, another parent, romantic interest, etc. They can even look like the people who hold a position of trust when it comes to being around children and families–such as educators, religious leaders, or care providers. They can also make it a point to look like someone who is concerned, invested, and has your well being at heart. When children are sexually abused, their abuser is usually not a stranger.
So how does a child abuser get close to the child in question? They engage in a deliberate process of gaining access to the child, developing trust, and manipulating the child to ensure the child does not speak out against them or disclose what’s happening to anyone. Through the “grooming” process, the abuser gains the trust of the child and adult through various stages. These stages take place over time because they are building rapport and finding ways to gain trust or access through a non-overt tactics.
First, an individual may look for vulnerabilities present in the family. Is the child getting enough attention? Is the child naturally more reserved and softer spoken? Is the child comfortable with her/her bodily autonomy and safety? Is there a need that can be fulfilled, such as being a close friend to the family or being a trusted entity? Are there emotional vulnerabilities present in the adult(s)? Through gift buying or manipulation, an abuser may begin to make the child feel special. They begin to slowly isolate the child through small acts such as picking up after school, taking them for quick errands or the park, etc. Finally, they begin to build secrecy around the relationship and introduce touch to be part of their relational dynamic. Again, this process is done gradually over time, through small hugs or types of touch that seem innocent at the start. Their goal in introducing touch very gradually is to desensitize the child. They may also think of opportunities where they can have an accepted reason to show some parts of the body. For example, taking them to the pool, athletic atmospheres where they have to go into a locker room, etc. They will play on a child’s normal curiosities about the body. And they will control the relationship by wielding the influential power they have over them and their caregiver(s) by means of emotional support.
My intent behind this post isn’t to just have you be “on the lookout” for people that exhibit a specific pattern of behavior. In most cases, the adults do not see this coming at all and can only take comfort in knowing what they can control by enacting boundaries, having open conversations with their children and reiterating what body safety means and looks like. Below are some things to take into consideration when having this talk with your children.
- Use correct terminology such as vagina or penis at an early age. It’s just like any other body part to name. One reason to not have nicknames for private areas is because if a child tries to disclose to or ask for help from another trusted adult, they may not be aware of what context they are using their nickname in. For example, there was an instance of a young child who referred to her private area as “cookie.” She let her teacher know that her uncle touched her “cookie” and her teacher didn’t think anything of it. Why would she? For the child, this moment was significant because when the teacher did not react, the child was left thinking that what they said was not important or that it was accepted. Another reason for using correct terminology is a prevention tactic because it lets the abuser know that body awareness conversations are being had at home and it is not an area of vulnerability.
- Empower your children by letting them know that they decide who they hug, touch, or kiss and that their private area needs to be respected by everyone. Make it clear that no one has the right to do three things: touch, look, or photograph their private parts. Furthermore, no one should be asking the child to do that to someone else. Just like when you introduce basic safety concepts to children at a young age, body safety needs to be introduced and revisited continuously. Like other values you instill in children, this is a conversation that needs to be revisited and tailored to their age, maturity, and level of understanding. If you can find moments to remind your kids to remember their manners, you can find moments to remind your kids about body safety/respect.
- Keep the channels of communication open to re-iterate that there are no secrets between child and parent. Explain the difference between good secrets and bad secrets. A good secret has a happy outcome, and everyone is excited when it does come out. A bad secret makes you feel sad or unsure and it may never come out.
- Educate yourself on other vulnerabilities that are present outside of your control. Does your school or daycare conduct background checks on all its employees and volunteers? Does the school or daycare have policies in place to mitigate alone time with children? If you are entrusted with someone else’s child, what steps do you take to ensure their safety around other people?
Victims do not often disclose right away or ever and this is usually due to fear of disrupting the family dynamic, fear of not being believed, or fear of retaliation. To empower your children and make them less susceptible to predators, we can begin to take action. I implore you to think about what is in your control and what you are doing about it now. Is it enough? If the answer is no, you’re in the position where you can take steps towards prevention to change the course.
Diana Nesko, MS, LGMFT provides family, couple, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Diana.