For many parents, one of their biggest fears is the possibility that their child could be sexually abused. While this fear is understandable, there are certain factors that you can learn about preventing sexual abuse that could help protect your children. To prevent childhood sexual abuse, we have to understand sex abuse prevention at its different levels. I will discuss this from a three tier approach.
Tier 1 – Community Awareness and Education
Building from the bottom up our first approach should be to examine sexual abuse from a community awareness and education approach (like this post). This is preemptive to any specific offense and takes a broad approach to make sure you, your family, your neighbors and your community are on the same page when it comes to healthy sexuality. This includes consensus on boundaries, verbal and physical, and understanding consent and how to know what consent looks like in real life situations.
There are a lot of great resources when it comes to community education on healthy sexuality. It is important to keep in mind who your audience is and make sure it’s age appropriate, but it’s never too early to teach kids about their bodies and setting boundaries with others. I recently came across this thoughtful video about consent made by a seven-year old and his mother:
And here’s another short video made for an older population about consent:
There are some programs in place to teach kids what to do if they find themselves in an unsafe situation. For example, there are good touch/bad touch programs that teach children that if they are touched inappropriately they should yell and run away. This approach can be helpful, and children should know that if they are in an uncomfortable situation with someone they have the right to do whatever they can to get away. These programs contain helpful information but they can have the unintended consequence of placing the responsibility on the child. For example, if the child was unable to yell and/or run away is it now their fault?
A child’s response to an abusive situation may not be to yell and run away. In fact, when put in abusive and traumatic situations children and adults often have a physical response that is much different than fighting to get out of the situation. Many people explain how they actually freeze up and often times cannot move, let alone run away from the perpetrator. This unexpected physical response can be confusing to the individual who experienced the abuse and often times leads the person to feel shame and responsibility for what has happened to them.
In addition to teaching children that they can do whatever they need to do to escape an abusive situation we should also be teaching them that given all their preparation and efforts they my respond by freezing up in these situations, and that’s normal. And they should know that no matter how they respond in the situation, they are not responsible for the actions of others.
Tier 2 – Preventing the First Offense
The second tier of prevention is preventing the first sexual offense against a child. This is a confusing and terrifying problem that parents face. Their children interact with so many people throughout the day. How can they know if their child is safe?
How do you know if someone is a sexual predator? This is a topic that has been studied from many different angles and what psychologists find is that the only real indicator that someone may sexually abuse children is that they have inappropriate boundaries with them. This means we as adults need to be aware of people in our lives who do not keep appropriate boundaries with children.
A few examples of this include coaches or teachers who want private time with children after others have left, or adults who over share too much of their personal lives with children or rely on them for emotional support. We need to be aware of how other adults are interacting with children and it is our responsibility to speak up when adults do not keep appropriate boundaries with children.
Parents also want to know if there are any indicators to look for in their kids to know if they have experienced sexual abuse. This is also a topic that has been studied from many angles and psychologists have found that it is not easily detected by outward signs in the child (for example, anxiety, depression, or anger), but there is one indicator that points to a child experiencing sexual abuse, and that is if the child has extensive knowledge of sexual acts.
This could be expressed by using language that is specific to sex acts that the child would not pick up from their everyday interactions, or reenacting sexual behaviors that show they have extensive knowledge about sex acts. When adults notice any of these behaviors in children they should refrain from punishing the child and instead talk to them about where the information was learned. If the child has experienced sexual abuse it would be smart to have them meet with a psychologist to give the child a chance to address what they have experienced.
Tier 3 – Preventing Relapse
The third tier of preventing sexual abuse is to prevent relapse of sexual offenses. Once a sexual offense has been committed the perpetrator needs to be held accountable. In Utah every adult is considered a “mandated reporter.” This means if you are aware of the sexual abuse of a child you are required to report it to the Department of Child and Family Services. This is such an important step in the prevention process because it allows the perpetrator a chance to get the help they need to heal and prevents them from continuing to committing sexual offenses.
If you know of a child who has or is experiencing sexual abuse, please report it. Together we can make our homes and neighborhoods a safer place for children to grow.