11/07/2010 06:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sexual Abuse: How Do We Keep Our Children Safe?

Forget-me-knot Day is Friday 12 November and supports survivors of child abuse whilst at the same time, increasing awareness of sexual abuse amongst our children.

It is estimated that there are 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America today.

In Australia, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of eighteen*.

As Ambassador for Forget-me-knot Day, I am passionate about helping people who have been sexually abused overcome the trauma and find their way forward. I want survivors of childhood sexual abuse to know that there is no shame in speaking out - that their voice needs to be heard in order to raise awareness of this important issue. Many adults who are victims of childhood sexual assault suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders; some end up suicidal.

Lauren was sexually abused almost every day for a year when she was ten years old. "He was one of my father's friends and I was too scared to tell anyone."

Justin was molested when he was six by a neighbour and like Lauren, felt too ashamed to speak out. "I started slacking off at school. I swore at teachers and started fights because I was so messed up inside."

My message as a survivor is that to overcome the trauma of sexual abuse it is important to be open and honest about it, and not be afraid to seek professional help.

"When it came out I was seventeen. I felt scared because my feelings became unpredictable," says Lauren. "I suffered flashbacks for the next year. I also suffered feelings of worthlessness and guilt."

The process of seeking professional help can be painful because it will bring up memories and horrible feelings - however the only way out is through. By acknowledging the pain and finding strategies to deal with it, you really can move forward and create a happy and fulfilling life.

Survivors need to know that they are worthy of love and deserve to live a full and wonderful life. In every situation we have a choice in terms of how we react and the way in which we decide to move forward. With the right help and support, survivors can find their way through the plethora of emotions of child abuse and rediscover a sense of health and wellbeing. For those who love them, listening, understanding and supporting are critical to the healing process.

"It wasn't until I was twelve that I opened up to my best friend and told her about what happened." Justin says. "I felt better for talking about it but the incident still haunted me."

In my book It Will Get Better; Finding Your Way Through Teen Issues there is a section about coping with sexual abuse with real stories from teens along with expert advice. Charlotte Beaumont-Field, Wellbeing Manager at the Inspire Foundation, says if your child has been abused, they need to know it's okay to say so. "Do not keep quiet - even if the abuser says not to tell anyone, you need to tell someone. Write it down and give them the note if you feel uncomfortable talking face to face."

Parents, care-givers and teachers are already vigilant about keeping our children safe. However I believe we need to adopt a new level of awareness. The incidence of childhood sexual abuse is frighteningly high and the only forward is to be receptive and responsive.


Friends. Be careful who you invite into your life because they will automatically be in your child's life as well. Most abuse occurs in the circles we mix within - the perpetrator is almost always someone known to the family. Instinct is powerful so trust your gut when it comes to the people you invite into your life.

Be open. Teaching your child from an early age about protecting their body will help them feel more confident. Let them know that no-one has the right to touch them inappropriately and if an adult makes them feel uneasy to tell someone immediately.

Awareness. By staying in tune with what is going on in your child's world, you will have every chance of recognising if something doesn't feel right. Always trust your instinct.

Disposition. If your child's disposition alters it is worth finding out why. Behaviour that is unnatural for your child such as a display of hostility or aggression, getting into trouble at school, withdrawal from family members, indicate something deeper is going on.

Act immediately. If your child discloses an incident of abuse, or tells you an adult has behaved in a way that made them uncomfortable, take immediate action. Reassure your child they are not to blame and do what you can to get help and support.

Most of what happens to us when we are growing up is out of our direct control. And abuse is one of the worst acts someone in a position of trust or authority can inflict upon an innocent person. Those who abuse are the only ones who should feel guilty or ashamed.

* Russell, D. E.H. (1988). The Incidence and Prevalence of Intrafamilial and Extrafamilial Sexual Abuse of Female Children. In: Handbook on Sexual Abuse of Children (eds) L. E.A. Walker. Springer Publishing Co.