Advice for parents to help them protect kids from sexual abuse

This is the flip side of my article Advice for pedophiles who don’t want to offend. A few days ago I did a Skype video interview with some wonderful young ladies who were very nice and easy to talk to. One of the questions they asked me was how to protect their children from sexual abuse. It took me aback, as I had never been asked this before and never expected for anyone to ask me this. I can’t remember what exactly I said, but I am sure my reply was woefully inadequate. But I’ve had a few days to think about it, so I decided to go ahead and formulate a post about it. To that end . . .

1) Remember that most offenders are not pedophiles – This is a difficult one for people to grasp. They’ve heard the word ‘pedophile’ conflated with sex offender so many times in the media and elsewhere that they genuinely believe that anyone who molests children is a pedophile. Ergo, when they are watching out for potential child molesters, they tend to look for people who fit some kind of pedophilic stereotype: they’re exceptionally nice to children, are awkward and ungainly around adults, etc. But the fact is, the majority of sex offenders against children (60-80%) are not pedophiles. They tend to be people who are very close to the child, often a family member. Fathers and stepfathers are the primary culprits, but they can be grandfathers, mothers, grandmothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, or close friends of the family too. This doesn’t mean that none of these people can be pedophiles, but generally they aren’t. Essentially, almost anyone can be a child molester.

The problem with the molesters-are-always-pedophiles viewpoint is that it tends to distract people from the more likely culprits: situational offenders who are closely related to the child. Parents really need to get out of this mindset, to keep their eyes and ears open and not be distracted by stereotypes. Also, despite the horrific sensational stories you see in the news, “stranger danger” is a greatly exaggerated problem. I’m not telling you to drop your guard entirely, but the reality is, of the million or so children who disappear every year, the vast majority of these are either runaways or parental abductions. Stranger abductions hover around one hundred per year, numbers that do not justify the extreme anxiety modern parents have about them. Moreover, when parents are spending all their time looking outward for potential dangers, they are often ignoring the real problematic area: their own home.

2) The ‘good touch, bad touch’ talk is counterproductive – At least for younger children, the concept of ‘good touch, bad touch’ generally fails to acknowledge an important reality: children are not inherently disgusted by sexual contact. Thus, when parents tell their children things like, “If someone touches you and it makes you feel uncomfortable, then that’s bad touch,” they are sending kids the wrong message. Small children have no inherent moral compass. It’s one of the things that makes them appealing to us. They don’t come with preconceived notions about reality, and that includes sex. Thus, if someone rubs their genitalia and it feels good (massages often feel good to kids, no matter where they are being massaged), then they aren’t going to automatically associate that with ‘bad touch’ and may even encourage it. Likewise, if the child initiates such contact, as they sometimes do, then they almost certainly aren’t going to consider that bad touch.

So, how do you get around this problem? After all, there may be times when a parent or doctor needs to touch a child’s genitalia in order to clean them, check for problems, etc., and you don’t want the child to think of that as abusive. The problem here is really one of proper communication, something small children often struggle with. Which leads to my third suggestion . . .

3) Children should know what’s appropriate for both adults and themselves – Many parents shudder at the idea of talking to young children about sex, but the fact is, the more the child knows, the better they will understand the motivations of those who might abuse them. ‘Good touch, bad touch’ is far too vague to be useful and, as I said earlier, it can actually confuse kids. They should understand that even if it feels good to them, having their genitalia touched by an adult is wrong if it isn’t for a specific purpose like cleaning and medical attention, and even then there are only a handful of people who should be allowed to do that. Likewise, it is never appropriate for a child to be touching an adult’s genitals for any reason, so if they are asked to do so, that is abuse.

On the flip side, children should be taught what is inappropriate for them to do to adults. Remember, a child may initiate such contact, but if the adult gives in, it is still abuse. Children therefore need to understand that there are certain things they are never to do with adults, like grabbing their penis or breasts, attempting to French kiss them, etc. If they do initiate these kinds of behaviors and the adult complies, then the adult is still responsible and the child should not be punished or blamed, but they still need to understand that there are certain things you just don’t do with adults. I came closest to acting on my attractions because of an aggrssively precocious child who did not understand these boundaries. I reckon a lot of abuse could be curtailed by just teaching kids about what is appropriate and not appropriate behavior with respect to adults.

4) Keep an open dialog with children – This is really the most important one. If children understand that they can come talk to you about anything, then they are less likely to keep secrets. Abusers thrive on exploiting children’s shame and fear, but if kids know they can talk to you and that you will give them a fair hearing on everything they tell you, even if they do something they know is wrong, then they are more likely to tell you if someone has abused them. I would say to them, “An adult should never ask you to keep a secret, and if they do, come tell me anyway.” I really can’t think of any occasion where an adult asking a child to keep a secret is appropriate. Children should not be burdened with adults’ secrets, no matter what they are.

More specifically, children should be able to approach you with questions about sex, and you should answer them honestly but in an age-appropriate manner, respecting their comprehension level and need-to-know. The younger the child, the more basic you should keep your answers. Talking to kids about abuse really should be part of any sex education discussion, but again, it should be at the level of a child’s understanding. And it should be ongoing. I know parents dread this discussion with their kids, usually reserving it until right before puberty, when they give their kids “the talk” one time and leave it at that. Well, this isn’t enough—not by a long shot. The more kids know you are comfortable talking about sex with them, the more likely they will be to tell you when there is something inappropriate happening (even if they don’t necessarily perceive it as inappropriate at the time). That means talking to them about sex every so often, and starting when they are very young. It’s time we got past our hangups about discussing sex openly, because it is this environment of secrecy and shame where sexual abuse thrives.

Bonus) If you know your child is being abused, react appropriately – Parents can react any number of ways when they discover their kid has been sexually abused, from denial to violence toward the abuser, neither of which is appropriate, but violence is the absolute worst way to react. You should understand that the child may have an emotional bond with their abuser, and if you react violently, that can be every bit as, if not more traumatic than, the abuse itself. Adults have a tendency to view child molesters through a particular lens, which may lead to confusion when things like this happen, but the child likely views it very differently. What you need to do is stay calm and rational. Violence is a bad lesson to teach victims of abuse anyway, regardless of their connection to their abuser. If the child has already been traumatized by their abuse, do you think reacting violently to the abuser is going to help them heal? And if the victim has an emotional bond with the abuser, what do you think hurting the adult is going to do to that child? Think before you react!

 

5 thoughts on “Advice for parents to help them protect kids from sexual abuse

  1. Good topic and good answer. I’d stress the idea of open communication. If you can react calmly to your preschooler kid picking their nose or masturbating in public, that’s a big step in the right direction. Good sex ed at home is mostly answering questions, not making lectures.

    I’d also stress that sexual abuse is one piece of the much bigger problem of other kinds of abuse. When Sally tells her mom that Uncle Fred touched her between the legs, if her mom reacts with fury and tells Sally she’s a vicious little liar, that is abuse that is likely to harm Sally more than what Uncle Fred did. If Sally fears her mom’s reaction, she won’t tell in the first place. Parenting is a stressful business, it’s very hard to be a consistently good parent, and it’s hard to summarize it in advice.

    But sexual abuse risks serious harm, pedophiles (and others) must never, ever do it. Parents under stress must be forgiven for falling short as parents, but any adult who is sexual with a child has absolutely no excuse.

    As for how to spot abusers, I would keep an eye on anyone who really enjoys spending time with your kids and wants to spend time alone with them. By no means assume they’re guilty! But just be watchful. If a child seems troubled by spending time with anyone, pay attention to that.

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  2. Good strategies overall. However I have a few qualms.

    Sexual abuse is very common in our society. Therefore, any child who initiates sex with an adult either a) has a serious mental illness, b) was previously a victim of abuse, or c) both a and b. I do not buy that all children are sexual beings with no moral compass. I think the pedophiles are biased here. A pedophile wants the child to have a sex drive.

    I did try to initiate sex with adults as a child. It is definitely not my proudest couple of moments, and it is all my fault. However, my case is rare.

    I personally think our culture needs to change from the authoritarian method of parenting. When a child says “NO!” they must be respected, and not be called out for “being defiant”. Children have told me my behavior was out of line in the past, in very blunt terms. I never touched them, nor did I try. But I was acting creepy, and so they called me out on that.

    I also like the whole “don’t let anyone touch you where a swimsuit covers up” bit. That is more specific, and my local CAC actually recommends that.

    But yes, most child molesters are situational offenders. That is why we must believe children when they tell us that they have been abused.

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    1. Hi, Magnus. First off, I disagree with your point that children who initiate or attempt to initiate sexual contact with an adult must be either mentally ill or a victim of abuse. That is much too simplistic. The fact is, children are sometimes exposed to sexual behaviors in media and are simply curious about it, and they may sense in us a willing guinea pig, since we tend to be pushovers when it comes to them. Young kids do not have an innate moral compass or innate bodily shame, nor an innate disgust of sex parts. That stuff is conditioned. So if they are exposed to those behaviors or ideas anywhere, including media (which is where they’re most likely to see it), then they may be interested in experimenting. You’re still young. When you have been around enough kids, you will begin to realize that this is what they do: test limits and experiment with whoever is willing. Your case is not rare at all. In addition to the things that J tried to do with me, I had another little girl who tried to French kiss me . . . twice. I’ve also had a girl who started to rub herself on my knee. I know that, as of that point at least, neither of those girls had been abused. It isn’t a matter of these children having a sex drive (a claim I never made, incidentally, so I’m not sure where you got that idea); it is a matter of them being driven by curiosity and playfulness and not being able to grasp that it’s wrong.

      I agree that authoritarian parenting is bad, but so is permissive parenting. There’s a middle ground and it is called authoritative parenting. An adult needs to be able to tell a child ‘no’ and control their behavior to some extent because children’s brains have not yet reached the point where they fully understand what’s going on, and when left to their own devices children often make very bad decisions. So adults need to hold some authority over kids; but they should always exert their authority in a respectful way that honors the child rather than humiliates or frightens them.

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      1. So neither of those girls have been abused. Do you know that as a fact, or are you just guessing? Abused children can appear happy and normal outwardly. They often don’t want people to suspect they are being abused, because they may just like the abuser, but want the abuse to stop. Children know what CPS arriving usually entails. These girls could have been abused right under your nose. There are no clear-cut signs of sexual abuse in a child. By the way, itching a private area, especially on someone else’s leg, is a sign of sexual abuse in and of itself. So is bizarre sexual knowledge or behavior, given the child’s age and developmental level.

        I have been around children many times. I have observed children in a pool area. I have never seen children play doctor with each other let alone the lifeguards. The one girl I like never did anything like that.

        Kids do experiment. I am not denying that. But they usually experiment with other children, and it usually doesn’t go very far. I experimented, and no clothing was removed. Why would a kid experiment with an adult when there are plenty of kids around?

        I will leave you with this. I was abused as a child. Not sexually, but abuse is abuse. A family member forced me into a car after he had been drinking. Nobody suspected my family at school until I told the guidance counselor. There was no smoking gun, no red flags. It boggles my mind how you can say with confidence that the girls were never abused. Did you live with them, and stay up at night monitoring the home? If not, then you have no proof that they weren’t abused. The parents are not going to come out and say “we abuse our children”. And really, it could be anyone abusing those girls.

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      2. I know they weren’t abused because I know them well. Both are now grown, and the subject has come up. Magnus, I don’t mind your comments, but don’t presume to tell me I’m wrong about something I know I’m not wrong about. You are being self-righteous here. You have a tendency to see abuse everywhere, and it makes you frustrating to deal with.

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