Childhood is envisioned as an idyllic time of learning, loving, fun and safety. We as parents make every effort to ensure that this is, indeed, the reality for our kids. Unfortunately, protecting our children from potential sexual abuse is not always as simple as it may seem.
It is often believed that only the “dirty old man” at the park or a stranger on the street is a threat to our kids. In reality, children are most at risk from someone they know, trust, respect and may love.
As parents, we need to play a vital role in protecting our kids, and must observe basic safety rules: Never leave your child with someone you don’t know well. Understand that an individual who has been known to touch children inappropriately is at very high risk to repeat this behavior — even if the offense was long ago, and the offender was punished and underwent treatment. Never allow your child to be unsupervised with someone who has been accused of sexually abusing a child. Period.
Today’s kids are spending more time in organized activities and settings, whether sports, clubs, daycare or religious activities, etc. The majority of the time children are safe in such organized settings. However, it’s important to be aware that individuals who abuse kids sexually can be educated, hold positions of authority and respect, and be married with children. Pay attention if an adult wants to spend a lot of time alone with your child.
Most important, educate your children. From an early age, kids should understand the concept of private parts, that no one should ever touch, kiss or interfere with them, and that they, in turn, should never touch anyone’s private parts. Teach your children the proper names for their body parts to help ensure that if ever touched inappropriately, they have the vocabulary to make what occurred clear to an adult. They should tell you or another trusted adult such as a nurse, a teacher or a police officer. Keep the channels of communication open, but never harass your child with repeated questions regarding sexual abuse — it can result in closing off communication altogether.
Most kids who are sexually abused have no physical signs of trauma. If you are concerned about possible inappropriate touching, you should not examine your child’s genitals. A health care provider should examine your child, and possibly, test for sexually transmitted infections.
Educate older kids, especially teens, about potentially high-risk situations for unwanted touching. Gatherings involving the use of alcohol and other drugs can place them at risk. Using drugs and alcohol decreases their awareness of danger and their ability to protect themselves. Investigate any concern you may have about possible sexual abuse. If your child discloses inappropriate touching, report it to child protective services immediately.
Not every child who is touched inappropriately will need ongoing mental health counseling, but a skilled therapist can make the assessment. Your health care provider or child protective services can assist you in finding the most appropriate resources for counseling, if needed.
Also, remember that providing a loving environment and believing and supporting your child are essential for healing.
Gail Hornor, MS, CPNP, works at the Center for Family Safety and Healing, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, OH.