The difficult topic of sexual abuse and sexual assault has been in the news a lot recently. Many parents want to know what they can do to help prevent this kind of abuse happening to their own children and other children in their neighborhoods. Here are some tips on how you can be actively involved in child sexual abuse prevention.
Separating Myths from Facts about Child Sexual Abuse
There are many myths about child sexual abuse out there. In order to know how to prevent this sort of abuse from happening, it’s important you know what the facts are.
One of the most pervasive myths of sexual abuse is that strangers pose the most danger to children. This is not true. According to research from Dr. David Finkelhor, the majority of sexual abuse of children is committed by someone the child knows. Sexual abuse can occur within the family (by a parent, step-parent, guardian, older sibling, or relative) or outside the family (often by a person well known by the child and family, such as a teacher or priest). Most research shows that no more than 10-30% of the offenders were strangers.
Additionally, many people vastly underestimate the rates of child sexual abuse. According to Darkness to Light, 1 in 10 children experience sexual abuse before they turn 18. Of those children, 20% are abused before the age of 8.
Like other adverse childhood experiences, child sexual abuse has a negative impact on child development with potentially lifelong consequences. Short-term consequences include difficulty focusing at school leading to lower academic performance, increased need for special services, and difficulty with socializing. Long-term consequences include long-term behavioral issues including violence, substance abuse, and mental health disorders.
These statistics underscore the importance for all parents to learn about their role in preventing child sexual abuse. So what can you do to help keep your children (and others!) safe?
How can I prevent this from happening?
A critical step to preventing child sexual abuse is being open with your children and having conversations. With younger children, it’s important that children are taught about how all the parts of their body work and the proper names for their body parts. Similarly, you’ll want to be sure your children understand the difference between “privacy” and “secrecy.” Because sexual abuse thrives on silence, it’s important that your children know that it’s OK to have a temporary secret, like a surprise party, but that they should never keep a permanent secret from you. Make sure your children know that they can talk to you about anything and you won’t be mad, even if some other adult tells your child that you will be.
With older children and teenagers, ensure that they know your family’s values around healthy relationships, and be sure to have open conversations with them about what healthy sexuality really is. For more information on how to have this conversation with your teens, check out this recent Parenting Tip.
In addition to having an open dialogue with your children, you can have similar conversations with administrators at your local school or daycare. Find out what sort of safety policies and training curricula are in place to keep kids safe. For example, you can learn how your local school screens employees and volunteers, and what sort of training they provide to teach staff how to identify and respond to sexually problematic or predatory behavior among children and adults and promote a healthy climate. If your school doesn’t have specific training in place, you can advocate to create these policies and encourage administrators to contact organizations like the Enough Abuse Campaign or Darkness to Light in order to find the curriculum that is right for your community.
What else can I do?
It’s important for parents to recognize the warning signs of child sexual abuse so that they can respond and intervene as quickly as possible. Although children who have experienced sexual abuse may be too frightened to tell anyone, there are physical and behavioral signs that may be seen. Check out this fact sheet to learn more about the physical and behavioral signs of child sexual abuse.
For more information, visit our Child Sexual Abuse Prevention landing page to find more fact sheets, resources, and information that you can use.