Sexual abuse is a tragedy. Always. The statistics are overwhelming: One in four women and one in six men will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetimes. Forty-four percent of sexual assault victims are younger than 18. About 80 percent of victims are abused by an acquaintance (relative, spouse, dating partner, friend, pastor, teacher, boss, coach, therapist, doctor, etc.). The charges filed this week against a former Steamboat resident remind us that we live in a precarious world, where the most vulnerable among us are at risk. Often, that threat comes from someone they know. How can we protect our children from sexual predators?
Explain to your child that his or her body is good but that some parts are private. Don’t discuss sex or sexual organs in embarrassed, awkward ways that will make your child think that you’re unwilling or unprepared to answer his or her questions.
Teach proper names for private parts. Factual language will give your child tools to ask and answer questions and to tell about any possible abuse. Be sure your child knows which parts of his or her body are private. Perhaps describe this as “what’s covered by a swimsuit or by your underwear.” This description is helpful for younger children. Older children should know that other parts of the body also be could touched inappropriately.
Let your child know that he or she can tell you if anyone touches him or her in private places or in ways that make him or her uncomfortable — no matter who that person is or what the person has told your child.
Explain the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch.” Be clear with adults and children about the difference between what’s acceptable and what’s inappropriate. Children need to know that while they may often enjoy being hugged, snuggled or tickled, sometimes they don’t want to be, and that’s OK. Little ones should be taught to say “stop” or “all done,” and adults should be taught to always honor that request from a child. This may be challenging for relatives, and a child’s refusal to hug grandpa is not an indictment. But if children learn from a young age that they can be in control of their bodies and their desires, they will have the ability to say “no” to unwanted touch as they grow older. (If your child doesn’t want to hug grandpa that day, how about a high five?)
Don’t ask your child to be responsible for your emotions. When we innocently ask a child for a hug “because Mommy is sad,” we inadvertently may be setting him or her up for the language an abuser uses. Abusers can take advantage of a child’s desire to help and make people happy by telling the child that if he or she does “this,” it will help the abuser not be sad.
Explain to your child the difference between a secret and a surprise. Secrets create exclusion. When a child becomes familiar with the isolating experience of maintaining a secret with one person, he or she may be more susceptible to abuse. Abusers often ask a child to keep a secret. Instead, use the word “surprise” for joyful events in your family that you’re looking forward to.
Identify who to trust. Children need to know about trustworthy adults in their lives with whom they can talk when they’re confused or scared about the behavior of another person.
Always report suspected abuse immediately to law enforcement.
Taking proactive steps with our children gives them tools to avoid the unwanted advances of a sexual predator. But nothing we do is more important than assuring our children of our never-ending, never-leaving, always-there-for-them love.
Melinda Clark is the mother of five and executive director of the Steamboat Springs Pregnancy Resource Center since 2009.