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Giving kids the words to understand sexual abuse

Parents have a fierce protective instinct when it comes to their own children. It is what wakes us in the middle of the night at the slightest noise. It is what causes us to lose our cool when we hear that our child may have been bullied. It is the force behind those apocryphal stories of mothers who find the strength to lift one side of an automobile in order to save their baby trapped underneath.

There is no doubt that parents want to protect their children. So why do we stay silent about the one issue that could harm our children the most: sexual abuse? A recent article in The Atlantic explores the seemingly taboo topic of child sexual abuse, as well as why so many parents and educators refuse to discuss the matter with children in a way that could either prevent abuse or allow children to report it.

First of all, it should be noted that the “stranger danger” narrative that most of us grew up with may be doing more harm than good. Strangers do sometimes sexually abuse children, but more than 90 percent of the time, children are sexually abused by someone they already know. According to statistics cited in the Atlantic article:

  • 34 percent of child sex abusers are family members
  • 59 percent of child sex abusers are acquaintances of the victims’ families
  • Between 30 and 50 percent of those who commit child sexual abuse do so when they (the abusers) are children or adolescents
  • 94 percent of child sex abusers are male

Children who are abused at a young age may not have the understanding to know that what happened to them was unacceptable or the words to report it.

Child safety advocates and schools are beginning to work together to give kids the tools they need to understand personal violation and express it in age-appropriate ways. Sometimes, the lessons are as simple as naming a body part and having children respond with “public” or “private.” In some lessons, the instructor will say: “Sometimes we like touching and sometimes we don’t. Touching is never a secret. Any person can say ‘no’ to touching.”

If you have minor children, please make sure they have the tools to understand and talk about sex abuse or other personal boundary violations. The subject may be uncomfortable, but if something ever does happen, silence and ignorance can be far worse.

Source: The Atlantic, "Teaching Kids About Sexual Assault," Catherine Buni, May 1, 2014

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