7 Ways for Parents to Help Stop Sexual Abuse

03/30/2015 05:44 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015
Sarah MacLaughlin

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. Since it struck a nerve, here are some additional tips and resources on this tough topic:

1. Be mindful of the messages you are sending. Do not prep children with these types of directives when you drop them off for a playdate: "Be good," "Do what you're told," or "Listen to the grown-ups." Praising compliance is a slippery slope. "Well-behaved," obedient, passive, quiet children are often targets for grooming, boundary-pushing, and abuse.

2. Stop using punishment as your go-to parenting approach. Punishment creates an "us vs. them" dichotomy that can erode your relationship with your child over time, leaving them 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.

3. Pay attention to parenting style. 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 preferred when you have a child faced with a problem as big as inappropriate sexual behavior from an adult in their life -- most likely one 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.

4. Set firm boundaries -- yours and theirs. Pay attention to when you need to say "no," and make space for children to say it, too. Encourage body autonomy by not requiring 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. 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.)

5. 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.

6. Encourage children to be self-referencing. Ask them often, "How do you feel?" and "What do you think?" Help them identify when they feel nervous and get a "funny feeling" in their tummy. If your little ones believe that you find them important and deserving of patience, they will be much more likely to come to you if they are ever in a situation in which they feel uncomfortable.

7. Grow your own emotional resilience and competence. When we indicate to our kids that certain things are unspeakable, or that we can't manage 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.

What other tips or advice might you share?

This article was originally posted at where Sarah offers skills and support for calm, cool, and compassionate parents.