By Kaitlin P. Ward, LCSW
April is the National Child Abuse Prevention Month. This month, child welfare agencies and human service organizations help to increase awareness and implement strategies to prevent the occurrence of all forms of child abuse and neglect.
Child sexual abuse is defined as a form of child abuse that involves sexual activity with a minor. Sexual abuse includes all forms of sexual activity, such as exhibitionism (exposing oneself to a minor); masturbation in front of a minor; touching or fondling genitalia; producing, owning, or sharing pornographic images or videos of a minor; obscene conversations over phone, text, or online message; rape; and any other contact of a sexual nature involving a minor. Child sexual abuse is never the child’s fault, and a child is never able to consent to sexual activity with an adult.
Child sexual abuse is more common than parents may assume. An estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the United States experience child sexual abuse. Statistically, children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13. When a child experiences sexual abuse, the perpetrator is a trusted person or family relative 91% of the time. Child sexual abuse can have lasting, even lifelong effects on survivors. Child sexual abuse can cause low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, distorted views of sex and intimacy, emotional and behavioral dysregulation, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately, when children are given a supportive environment and evidence-based trauma therapy, children can recover and show high levels of resiliency. While child sexual abuse is a devastating and unjust reality, there are a number of things parents can do to help prevent child sexual abuse. The information below presents recommendations that are supported by a robust line of research evidence from child abuse prevention experts.
1) Teach your child accurate names for body parts. Correct names for all body parts should be taught to children as early as possible. If parents use euphemisms to teach their children about body parents, children will have a difficult time disclosing what a perpetrator tried to do, or did do, to them. Empowering children to understand their body helps children not feel shame toward their bodies and reduces confusion about body parts. A great book on this topic is Your Whole Body by Lizzie DeYoung Charbonneau
2) Teach your child about body privacy. Parents can teach children that some body parts are private, meaning not for sharing, and not for everyone to see. During this conversation, it is important that parents explain when and how they can share their bodies in appropriate ways. This includes teaching about human reproduction and masturbation. These conversations should take place in a non-shame-based manner. Some great books on this topic include Teach Your Dragon Body Safety by Steve Herman and My Body Bubble by Michael Gordon
3) Teach your child about consent. Teaching children about consent will help them respect their bodies and maintain appropriate boundaries with others. Lessons about consent involve parents teaching children to ask permission before touching another person, teaching children how to say “no”, and teaching children what to do if their body boundaries are violated. Learning about consent helps children gain a sense of ownership of their bodies and gives children choices for what happens to their bodies. Some great books on this topic include Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect by Jayneen Sanders and I Said No! Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Body Parts Private by Kim King, Zach King, and Sue Rama.
4) Teach your child to not keep secrets. It is important for parents to teach children the difference between surprises, such as a birthday present, and secrets. Research suggests that most perpetrators will ask children to keep a secret or threaten to get the child in trouble if
they tell anyone about the abuse. Parents can teach children that secrets are not OK, no matter what. Parents can also help children know that they will never get in trouble for telling parents about a secret someone tried to make them keep. Some great books on this topic include Do You Have a Secret? By Jennifer Moore-Mallinos and Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept by Jayneen Sanders.
5) Have ongoing, open conversations with your child. Child sexual abuse prevention conversations should not occur one time only. Ongoing parent-child conversations about consent, body autonomy, and personal safety should be normalized. Beyond conversations about the body, parents can establish norms of having regular, mindful conversations with children about their feelings and experiences. Some materials that can help start those conversations are the Mindful Talk cards and Connection Cards for Kids.
While following these recommendations can reduce a child’s risk for child sexual abuse, there is no infallible way for parents to prevent sexual abuse. Luckily, there are a number of resources to help parents and children should sexual abuse occur.
If a parent suspects that their child or someone else’s child may have been sexually abused, it is important to contact Children’s Protective Services, who will help conduct a full investigation and connect the child to needed services and resources. Children’s Protective Services may have children go to a Children’s Advocacy Center, where they can tell their story in a child-friendly location with trained professionals. Your local Children’s Advocacy Center may also provide child sex abuse prevention classes for parents or trauma-informed therapy for children and their families. Parents can also go to www.psychologytoday.com to find a child therapist in their area who is covered by their insurance (or find therapists who provide therapy on a sliding-scale fee for those who do not have insurance).
When parents educate their children about their bodies, help children understand consent, and have ongoing open conversations with their children, they increase the likelihood that their children will have a healthy relationship with their bodies, respect other people’s boundaries, and turn to their parents should their own boundaries be violated. Beyond protecting children from sexual abuse, following these recommendations will promote children’s self-efficacy, competence, and overall wellbeing.
Kaitlin P. Ward is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of Michigan. She is a Joint PhD Candidate in Social Work & Developmental Psychology at the University of Michigan and has over 30 peer-reviewed publications centering on cross-cultural child and family wellbeing. Kaitlin is also a People Analytics Researcher at Google, where she studies issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and is a Research Affiliate at the University of California, Berkeley School of Social Welfare.