Co-authored by Jennifer Sager, Ph.D.
Child welfare professionals were not surprised to learn that sexual abuse occurred in the Duggar home. With 19 children (and counting), the odds suggested that at least a fifth of the children in the home would experience sexual abuse in their lifetime. The first sign of sexual abuse was a tragic occurrence. The multiple acts that followed were an outrage, and likely, those multiple acts could have been stopped.
When we (Stacey Steinberg, J.D. and Jennifer Sager, Ph.D.) introduce ourselves to teachers and other parents, questions about our careers and backgrounds often result in awkward pauses followed by intense conversation. As child advocates having worked with both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, parents often ask us, "What can I do to keep my child safe?"
In light of the Duggar abuse scandal, protecting children from sexual abuse is on many parents' minds. Avoiding all risk is unlikely, but there are steps parents can take to minimize their child's risk of sexual abuse. These tools will also help children get help if victimization occurs.
- Accept that sexual abuse is prevalent. 1 in 662,000 children will become an Olympic athlete. 1 in 2,872 children will become a doctor. 1 out of every 4 girls and 1 out of every 6 boys will be sexually abused. Put down the STEM kit and stop obsessing about finding the perfect pair of running shoes. Realize that the best thing you can do to help your child succeed is prioritize his or her safety.
- Know that in about 93 percent of sexual abuse cases, the child knows the abuser. Stranger is not the real danger. The abuser is typically a family member, a babysitter, a coach, or a teacher. Although most of the abuse is done by men, females also sexually abuse. This is typically where parents get scared. "Who can I trust?" It's important to evaluate everyone in your child's life. And to continue to evaluate as time passes. There are some people who are attracted only to young children. There are some that will only be attracted once your child has hit puberty. Just because someone was safe, doesn't mean they are always going to be safe.
- Name the body parts. Butt, vagina, vulva, penis. Using cute names tells children that those areas are funny and that you, as the parent, are uncomfortable talking about those parts of their body. Plus, it doesn't help when a little girl tells her teacher "Uncle Johnny licked my cookie" when she means her vagina area. When we give a child proper vocabulary, we give her tools to get help when she needs it.
- Teach body awareness. When a child cries over a cut on his finger don't say, "You are fine, don't worry about it." If we minimize his feelings, we teach the child that we know his body better than he does. Acknowledge his pain. When he cries, say, "that hurts, but it will get better." Stop what you are doing and connect with the child, so that he knows you will listen when he needs you.
- Talk about body safety. When you are tickling your child and she says "stop," stop. She might obviously want you to continue. She might even scoot her body over towards you. Say, "stop means stop. And no means no. When you are ready for me to tickle again, just ask." Allow her to ask before continuing the tickling. This teaches a child that she is in control of her body.
- The last tip is a big one for us. Remove the word "secret" from your child's vocabulary. A secret is something that is kept hidden forever. A surprise is a gift or event, which is revealed at a certain time. It is always eventually told. Use words like hidden, mystery, private, surprise, confidential, or super agent (instead of secret agent). There are no "good secrets" or "bad secrets." Tell your children that families can have surprises, but no secrets.
The terrifying reality is that there isn't a surefire way to protect your child from sexual abuse. Despite using all the tools, someone can still hurt your child. However, by being aware and talking to your child, you can help protect your child and decrease the risk of sexual abuse.
To report child sexual abuse, call the National Child Sexual Abuse hotline at 1-866-FOR-LIGHT (866-367-5444) or for immediate help, dial 9-1-1.
The information contained in this article is for general knowledge and should not be a substitute for professional medical or legal advice.