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How to protect your children from sexual abuse

July 06, 2015

A few months ago the famous reality television family, the Duggars, made headlines when reports surfaced that the eldest child, who is now a husband and father in his late twenties, sexually abused several young girls (including several of his sisters) when he was a teenager. There are supporters of the family who say that the family did all of the right things, and there are critics who feel that more could have been done to address the abuse and support the victims. The show and the family have been loved by many for the strong family values they encourage. The idea that this family, a family that appears wholesome and “perfect” could be harboring a secret like this was shocking to many.

The truth is, sexual abuse can happen to anyone’s family, no matter what kind of family they are.

Know the facts

Sexual abuse is a scary thing for families. Statistics tell us that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach 18 years of age. That is frightening. We also know that 90% of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way.

When the facts and figures are so grim, it’s no surprise that parents become terrified. The fear of what to do if it happens is strong and the anxiety over how to keep one’s children safe can be overwhelming. Since most parents send their children to school, day care, camps, sleepovers, and friends’ houses, how can we protect them?

Talk about sexual abuse

Talk to your kids about their bodies. Explain what sexual abuse is, in terms that they will understand. In an age and developmentally appropriate way, teach them that their private parts are just that- private. No one needs to see them or touch them, unless it’s a parent or doctor and they are making sure that they are clean, safe and healthy. My son’s pediatrician tells him this every year at his physical, and I’m so glad. Not only does my son hear that message from his parents, but from his doctor as well.

Know where your kids are and who they’re with

Remember that people that abuse children look like everyone else. This is hard for a lot of people to accept, but they can be your family members, your neighbors or your friends. Most of the time when a child is abused, they are abused by someone they know. Make an effort to get to know the parents of your kids’ friends and who your children spend time with. Do not leave your child alone with someone if you do not feel confident that he or she is a safe person to watch your child.

Educate!

There are all kinds of books and videos out there for children that cover the topic of safety and sexual abuse. Look for material that covers safety, boundaries, what sexual abuse is, and how to tell someone if something happens. Always watch or read through the material on your own first to make sure that you are comfortable with the content.

Call it what it is

Experts agree that one way to empower our kids is to teach them the names of their body parts- all of their body parts, including their private parts. When I was a kid, there were (and still are) all kinds of cutesy or silly names for male and female genitalia, as if saying the words “penis” and “vagina” were negative things. Teaching kids to call it what it is helps them learn about their bodies and makes it much easier for them to talk to someone if something happens to them.

Tell them to tell

The scary thing is, no matter how much prevention and education we do, things can still happen. When you talk to your child about sexual abuse, tell them that if anyone ever touches their private parts, does or says something that feels uncomfortable or “weird,” asks them to take their clothes off or take pictures of them, tell them to say no, try to get away, and tell you or someone else (their teacher, their babysitter, their friend’s parent, etc.) as soon as possible. Many abusers will try to scare a child into keeping the abuse a secret by threatening to hurt them or their family, telling them no one will believe them, or telling them that all kids do this and everyone keeps it a secret. Explain to your child that if someone says those things, they should not believe that person and they should tell you anyway. Empathize with them that it would be confusing or scary, but reiterate that no matter what, they need to tell so that you can help them and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Believe them

Is it possible for a young child to make up a lie about someone touching them inappropriately? Anything is possible, but it’s not likely. A young child would likely have no way to make up being sexually abused, because they would not have a frame of reference for it. Statistics vary, but most indicate that it is rare for a child to lie about being abused. If your child comes to you and tells you something has happened to them, follow the proper protocols to have the situation investigated and let the professionals figure out what is real and what is not.

What do I do?

If your child tells you that they have been sexually abused, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1 800 96 ABUSE. You will be connected to an operator where you can share what your child has told you. If the operator feels it is necessary to investigate the situation further, they will likely have a caseworker come to talk with you and your family. The caseworker will guide you and your family through the process of finding out what happened and discussing legal options and treatment for your child. Most experts agree that counseling with a mental health professional that specializes in trauma or abuse is beneficial to the child. Do not blame your child for the abuse. The blame falls on the adult, no matter what the child has said or done.

Get help for your child, for you, and your family. Deciding that “we just won’t talk about it” or sweeping it under the rug reinforces any feelings of shame that a child might have. If you live in Orange county, contact the Howard Phillips Center for Children and Families at 407 317 7430 for information on programs and services designed to help families in need.

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