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Protect Your Kids From Sexual Abuse
Protect Your Kids From Sexual Abuse
One of the most common types of child abuse is sexual abuse, which is any sexual act between an adult and a minor (or between two minors in which one person exerts power over the other). Sexual abuse can include sexual contact, as well as exhibitionism, exposure to pornography, voyeurism and communicating in a sexual manner. Alarmingly, a 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused before the age of 18. This means there are currently more than 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the United States.
Sexual abuse is an epidemic that can have a lasting negative impact on the emotional, social and sexual development of survivors. As a psychotherapist, I hear about memories of child sexual abuse all too often. As a parent, I know it’s one of the greatest fears we can have for our children. Therefore, it’s critical that we stay aware, informed and empowered about child sexual abuse, and take practical steps to promote safety for our kids.
The three most important actions parents can take
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), children are most often sexually abused by someone they know and trust. NCTSN reminds parents to avoid focusing exclusively on “stranger danger,” and says the best time to talk to your child about sexual abuse is now.
Feather Berkower, a licensed clinical social worker and 25-year veteran in child sexual abuse prevention, stresses that people who abuse kids count on our discomfort, passive acceptance and silence. She urges parents to unite in an effort to stop child sexual abuse by breaking the silence and advocating for kids like never before.
Berkower, who runs a Parenting Safe Children training program, says the most important actions parents can take to prevent sexual abuse include:
- Getting educated. Learn what makes children vulnerable to sexual abuse, as well as the processes offenders use to gain access to kids. Awareness of what child sexual abuse is, how common it is and who is at risk are all very important in reducing abuse. Test your knowledge.
- Empowering your kids. Teach body-safety rules to your kids, including how to care for body parts when bathing or going to the bathroom, and discuss the difference between “OK” and “not OK” touching.
- Screening your caregivers. Effectively evaluate every caregiver in your child’s life. Also, trust your instincts if you do not feel comfortable leaving your child with someone, even if it’s for a play date or a sleepover in the care of another parent.
In the book she coauthored, Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse (Safer Society Press, 2010), Berkower provides tools to help teach kids body-safety rules, along with questions to ask and techniques to use to screen prospective caregivers. “The more we speak up, the safer our children are,” she emphasizes.
How to talk to your kids
In response to parents who are concerned about scaring their children by discussing sexual abuse, Berkower says, “Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to talk about body safety in a non-scary, age-appropriate way. And it’s never too early to start.” She provides the following example:
When you’re bathing your 18-month-old daughter, you might say: “Mommy is cleaning your back and your legs. Now, mommy is helping you clean your vagina. Your vagina is your private part. You’re the boss of your body.”
As the child gets a little older, you would add to the body-safety rule: “Your vagina is one of your private parts, and no one is allowed to touch your private parts unless you need help cleaning them, or your private parts are hurt or sick and the doctor needs to examine them. And mommy will always be in the room if the doctor has to look at your private parts.”
Experts say that talking with your kids will help them to develop understanding and ownership of their bodies, and will empower them to be assertive and set boundaries with potential abusers. It also helps kids understand the difference between “good secrets,” such as surprise parties, which are short term, and “bad secrets” that an abuser warns a child to keep forever.
Another key to preventing child abuse is to talk with school, camp and community organization administrators to make sure they have policies in place to reduce the risk of sexual abuse.
Darkness to Light, an organization dedicated to ending child sexual abuse, also suggests that all adults act on any abuse suspicions they might have. If you are concerned a child may be being abused, call a hotline such as the Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD.
The good news is that reported incidents of child sexual abuse appear to be on the decline. According to a 2010 U.S. Health and Human Services report, the number of identified incidents of child sexual abuse decreased 47 percent from 1993 to 2005–2006. To continue the downward trend of this still far-too-common occurrence, we need to work together to keep ourselves educated, our kids empowered and our communities actively enforcing policies to promote prevention.
By: Joyce Marter
Joyce is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and owner of Urban Balance, an insurance-friendly counseling practice with over 40 therapists and five locations in Chicagoland. She was selected by Crain's Chicago Business for the "40 Under 40" list of 2010. Marter received her Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from Northwestern University and was awarded Distinguished Alumni of the Year in 2008. She currently serves as the Vice President of the Board of the Illinois Mental Health Counselors Association. Marter has been consulted as a psychological expert on television, radio and in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and U.S. News.
April 26th, 2012