How can I keep my child safe from sexual abuse?
One great side effect about learning how to protect our children from sexual abuse is that we can set our children up for a more healthy sexual life throughout adult hood. This is something many parents don’t think about – we just leave our child’s sex life to them to figure out. *Squirm* – who wants to delve into that stuff?
But for much of our lives after childhood we use sex to connect in our most important relationship.
Or we try. For many it can be a bewildering, bungled attempt that results in resentment and total disconnection. As any sex therapist can tell you, an awful lot of suffering is caused by trying to figure sex out on our own!
We can help our children develop a mature, compassionate and safe way of approaching this particularly fraught area of their lives.
Here are ten simple steps you can get started on right away to protect your child from sexual abuse and, as a nifty side effect, help them develop the tools they’ll need for a healthy relationship later on. May you never need number ten.
1. Teach your child explicitly what is appropriate and not appropriate so that they don’t have to work it out themselves in a stressful moment.
2. Teach your child to recognise and trust their instincts. Even if this is occasionally uncomfortable for you. Sometimes we have to interact with people we don’t feel safe with but we should never have to be left alone and powerless with them for regular periods of time.
3. Have a no secrets policy. Young children can’t differentiate between good secrets and bad ones. Let them know it is not ok for anyone to ask them to keep secrets.
As they get older you can start differentiating between surprises and secrets, and then talk about gossip and other unwise speech. But keep letting them know that everything is safe to talk about with you. And make sure it IS safe. Role model and reward honesty.
4. Practice with your child saying NO loud and clear. We tend to teach our children to be polite and quiet, so role play is useful.
There’s an important place for compassionate rough play, too. It helps children develop their boundaries and gain confidence under simulated stress. The most important things your child can do if they feel threatened is to kick up a big noisy stink and run to the nearest safe adult.
Nobody wants a victim who will call attention or who can’t be trusted to keep secrets. So provide opportunities for your child to experiment with being a loud brat who is quick to duck and dodge.
5. Perpetrators most often groom children who are compliant, with carers who are distracted or who trust them.
So don’t be distracted.
Money trouble, relationship issues, addictions or work stress can all take our focus away enough for someone to develop a manipulative relationship with our child without us knowing what is going on.
Dedicate regular check-in times so that you know your child well and work hard at those lines of communication. Know what is going on for them.
As one convicted paedophile said: if an adult wants to spend regular, extended periods of time alone with your child alarm bells should go off. If they actively maneuver their way into such a position you need to stop what you’re doing and step in.
6. Listen to your child. Sometimes we teach children not to trust in their own power and that no doesn’t really mean no because we have so much fun tickling them or playing scary games, or because we don’t want to be rude to aunty so-and-so.
Don’t make your child hug and kiss other people or sit on their lap if they don’t want to. And when they say no to you, stop! If they say stop to cheeky uncle whatsisname who never quite knows when he’s not being funny any more and he doesn’t stop, back your child up so they see that it’s ok to say no and be heard.
If you can’t actually stop right then (for instance if your child is getting a needle at the doctors), be impacted by what they say. Hear them and explain exactly what is going on and when it will end.
And always listen if your child is telling you that something is going on. Even if you find it hard to believe, remember that children almost never make up stories about sexual abuse.
7. Establish a network of safe people that your child can get to know as they grow.
Safe people are those who genuinely respect your child’s boundaries and are able to be present enough to form a connection with your child.
The more people your child has on their side that they feel safe to turn to or talk to the more likely that someone will pick up on something that shouldn’t be happening or that your child is not feeling ok about.
7 (bonus). Let your child know that they have a right not to interact with people who willfully disregard their wishes. (You have this right, too!)
If we taught all our children that it is ok to set boundaries, and ok to walk away from people who willfully ignore our boundaries maybe we would see less emotional abuse and domestic violence as well as less sexual abuse.
8. Be real. We (almost) all have either a vulva or a penis. Use their real names, don’t be squeamish about them or their functions and answer questions that come up about sex, babies, teenage years and sexuality frankly and without judgement.
Less mystery means more power. And it means you get to direct the narrative. AND it means you become the trusted go-to person about any concerns.
9. Don’t get all thingy about normal kids’ play, blokes who like mucking about with kids or teachers/priests who show a soft side.
Trust me when I say you can not tell who might abuse your children. Keeping children locked away from the world and instilling a fear of the unknown or anything different makes them more vulnerable to manipulative predators who can use that fear to cloud judgement.
Most child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and it often follows a period of grooming.
So rather than ramping up the stranger danger paranoia and never trusting anyone even for a second, just put into place the 8 simple steps above and encourage your child to fully enjoy the company of anyone they feel safe with.
The more robustly independent your child’s relationships are in general, the more confident they will feel about speaking up or moving out of relationships that feel unsafe.
10. If the worst does happen, act swiftly to put an end to it, take your child’s side and get professional help right away to deal with it. Humans are highly resilient and mostly scarred by chronic, unresolved stress from situations we felt powerless to change.
We can deal with all kinds of things with the right support, especially if we know someone is truly on our side through it all.
Tanya Burke is the creator of the Wise Child Happy Child series of practical tools for teaching Emotional Intelligence and co-author of A Doctor’s Dream.
Image credit Unhappy Young Woman by David Castillo Dominici freedigitalphotos.net