The FBI report on the Sandusky sexual abuse case is very disturbing. My fellow parents have used words like horrible, shocking and disgusting. As parents, we read the headlines and feel powerless. But there are serious lessons we can learn from this case. What do we need to know to help break the cycle of shame, secrecy and ignorance that allows sexual abuse to continue? As a clinical psychologist, here are four things I think every parent should know about childhood sexual abuse:
1) Sexual abuse is rampant.
These are not isolated incidents by isolated perpetrators. Large scale studies of the U.S. population suggest that approximately 17% of adult women and 8% of adult men report a history of childhood sexual abuse. That is almost one in ten girls and one in twelve boys. Keep in mind that these kinds of studies may actually be an underestimate. There are many abuse survivors who never talk about their experiences due to feelings of stigma and shame.
2) Sexual abuse is rarely about "stranger danger."
Most of us do a decent job of talking to our kids about the stranger who might jump out of the bushes. Or we give them an example of a man who might try to solicit help in finding a lost dog, only to abduct them. But the fact is that a huge percent of abuse is committed by family, friends and acquaintances. This is an uncomfortable and scary fact. Because these are people that our kids inherently trust, it profoundly changes the nature of the discussions we need to be having with our children.
3) We need open, ongoing discussions with our children about sexuality, their bodies and trust.
These topics are often embarrassing and difficult for most parents, and there are books that can help. One thing we can tell our children is "most adults really like children, but a few adults can hurt children." It's important to tell kids from an early age that their body belongs to them and that their private parts belong to them. If you are wondering how to define "private parts," you can tell them it is the parts of their bodies covered by a swimsuit. It's also important to tell them that secrets should never make them feel sad, ashamed or scared. Finally, tell them again and again that you will always be available if they ever need to talk. Tell them that you will always believe them and do everything you can take care of them. Children need to feel secure and loved in this uncertain world. This security can come from teachers and other community members, because not every child has a parent who can fulfill this role.
4) Every child is everyone's business.
Adults who allow abuse to continue have to live with the consequences of their actions and know they have caused irreparable harm to a fellow human being. The word "whistle blower" has a negative connotation for many people. And indeed, there can be negative consequences for people who point out wrongdoing. I believe that when there are children involved, we need to see adult whisteblowers as "heroes" and "protectors." We need to become a culture that errs on the side of children. We need to teach our own children to be whistleblowers. We must model this behavior ourselves by staying involved and concerned about the lives of all the children we know. Pedophiles count on two things -- shame and secrecy. Let's not give it to them.
As parents, once we know that sexual abuse is common and that it frequently committed by people known to our kids, we can no longer be silent. We need to have frequent conversations with our children and change the culture so that every child feels protected and loved. These are our children. One in ten girls and one in twelve boys -- all of them are our children.