I shared a savvy piece on my Facebook page last week from Lauren’s Kids about How Smart Parents Miss Sexual Abuse. It got more shares than anything else I posted last week. Or the week before. Or the week before that. Apparently, it struck a nerve.
Thought I’d chime in with some additional tips and resources on this icky and sticky topic:
1. Be mindful of the messages you are sending. As with the advice offered in the above piece to not ask children (upon returning from time away from you) if they “were good listeners” or “behaved well,” do not prep them with these types of directives beforehand: “Be good,” “Do what you’re told,” or “Listen to the grown-ups.” Praising compliance is a slippery slope. The article also makes reference to children being afraid to change their story and disclose abuse because they worry they will be labeled as liars. Try to not moralize lying from children. It is a big button-pusher for most adults, yet most adults do it often.
“Well-behaved,” obedient, passive, quiet children are often targets for grooming, boundary-pushing, and abuse.
2. Stop using punishment (corporeal or other) as your go-to parenting approach. Punishment creates a climate in which the children “get in trouble” from the grown-ups—this is an “us vs. them” dichotomy that will erode your relationship with your child over time, leading to them being not as inclined to come to you when there is a problem or difficulty. Children need to know that you are on their side, no matter what. Authority and parenting style are most effective when moderate. All the research shows that an authoritative, “firm and kind” approach, that is emotionally attuned and validates feelings, is healthiest. Punishment’s main motivator is fear, and fear of you is not what you want when you have a child faced with a problem as big as inappropriate sexual behavior from an adult in their life—most likely an adult you know and trust.
The US Department of Health and Human Services’ 2010 report on Child Maltreatment noted that only 2.8% of abused children are abused by someone they do not know.
3. Encourage boundaries—yours and theirs. Pay attention to when you need to say “no,” and make space for them to say it too. I had a mom ask me recently about avoiding saying “the ‘N’ word” with her toddler. The theory is that if you don’t ever say it, they won’t ever say it back. To that theory I say, “NO.” Allowing children to say no gives them autonomy. Encourage body-autonomy as well. Do not require them to hug or kiss anyone they do not wish to hug and kiss (yes, even grandparents!). In the same vein, I recommend not forcing the issue on eating new foods either. Even the “one bite rule” encourages kids to not listen to their own bodies. (Yes, I know they will tell you they are hungry only for cookies. I’m not talking about THAT kind of nonsense.)
According to The Future of Children, “Most sexual abuse is committed by men (90%) and by persons known to the child (70% to 90%), with family members constituting one-third to one-half of the perpetrators against girls and 10% to 20% of the perpetrators against boys.”
4. Teach the proper names for body parts. All the body parts! Get support and practice beforehand if needed. The best approach is not “The Talk,” once, and in adolescence. Early and frequent discussion about bodies and their functions, in a developmentally appropriate way, is what’s required. Doctors Mary Calderone and James Ramey, in Talking with Your Child about Sex, offer some sound insight: “Deliberate adult avoidance of the area between the waist and the knees can hardly go unnoticed by the child, especially when other body parts are freely mentioned. Since the child already knows that this is an important pleasure center of the body, such avoidance can cause confusion and lay the groundwork for later problems.”
Core Parenting has a host of articles about promoting healthy relationships and sexuality with children and teens.
5. Teach children to be self-referencing. Ask them often, “How do you feel?” and “What do you think?” Help them identify when they get a “funny feeling” in their tummy, or feel nervous. If your little ones believe that you find them important and deserving of patience, dignity, and respect, they feel that self-esteem, and will be much more likely to come to you if they are ever in a situation in which they feel uncomfortable. Listen to what your children have to say on a regular basis.
The Children’s Assessment Center says, “Adult retrospective studies show that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18. This means there are more than 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S.”
6. Grow your own emotional resilience and competence. When we indicate to our kids (though various means), that certain things are unspeakable, or that we can’t manage our own (or their) strong feelings, or that we would, “never get over it,” if X happened, we send a scary message. We convey emotional frailty, and our kids will hide information to protect us from that which they believe we cannot handle. Having emotional resilience and competence does not mean repressing our feelings. It means owning and feeling them, boldly and bravely. This will show our kids that we will rise to the occasion and help them with any problem they may face—even the ones in our worst fears.