The title wave of news reports regarding sexual abuse is stomach churning. Even more sickening is the fact that people in so-called helping professions (i.e., doctors) can use the trust given to them to abuse children. Some of us would like to think that young athletes (female gymnasts), given their perceived strength of character, could not be so rampantly taken advantage of. The recent case of Larry Nassar disturbs us to no end and it reminds us it is difficult to trust anyone, even “The Doctor”.
Reliable scientific statistics clarify that sexual abuse is very widespread and no neighborhood is safe from it. 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult.
There are steps you can take to minimize the chances your child will be abused in this sickening manner.
1 From the age of 3 to 4, discuss with your child how they can distinguish between “good touch” and “bad touch”. Make sure they are clear on where the boundaries are, and let them know they need to tell you if anyone does any bad touching on them. This should be an ongoing discussion that occurs every three or four months. It does not need to be a long discussion but you need to make sure your child is VERY CLEAR on this distinction. As the child reaches older ages, the parent can give the child examples of different places they might be touched and ask the child to clarify if that would be a good touch or bad touch.
2 From this same very young age, discuss with your child the difference between a “good secret” and a “bad secret”. An example of a “good secret”, you can tell them, is keeping secret a surprise birthday party. A “bad secret” is when anyone touches them in their private area(s), and then tells them to keep that a secret. You also should make sure they understand that a “bad secret” would include if they see anyone else do harm to someone else physically, or by being very mean to them, or touching them in their private area. As a parent you should regularly talk with them about this difference to make sure they firmly internalize this distinction.
3 As your child reaches the ages of around 6 to 8, you can discuss with them certain things adults should not be doing with them, especially ones they do not know. This is an extension of the “good touch, bad touch” talk, but it includes discussion of how there are some strangers who will ask them to do things like sit on their lap or make other kinds of physical contact that is not appropriate. You will also want to make sure you are clear with your child about what kinds of touching relatives in your own family can do. This can sound over the top, until you understand that sexual abuse occurs within families as well.
4 Have discussions with your child about the fact that adults who do too much good touching can lull the child into thinking other kinds of touching is okay. You need to let your child know there are certain areas that should NEVER be touched by strangers or anyone (even family members). Make sure your child understands that there are adults out there who first will work to earn their trust before they try any bad touching. Again, tell your children they should always come to you even if the feeling they are having is very slight or just a gut instinct.
5 Tell your child to trust their gut instincts and come to you anytime they feel any discomfort with an adult related to how that adult is interacting with them or touching them. Tell your child that NO MATTER WHO IT IS, even if it is a close family friend, or a playmate they hang out with all the time, they need to come to you. Not uncommonly, children are very perceptive and will pick up on overly invasive behaviors but will write them off, ESPECIALLY if the parent seems to give that adult reverence. Unfortunately, Dr. Larry Nassar exploited the reverence he was given. Let your child know that even if they are unsure about their feeling, they should still come to you and talk about it and together the two of you can discuss their feelings and thoughts. Tell them this is very important, and dangerous NOT to do this. It is okay to instill a reasonable amount of fear in your child such that they take this very seriously. Of course you’re not trying to traumatize them, but you do need to raise their level of awareness such that they will be hypervigilant.
6 When you take your child to the doctor, especially if it is a male doctor with your daughter, you have the right to ask the doctor in what ways they would need to touch your child and any ways that could feel invasive for your child. It’s important for you to make sure your child understands what it should feel like to undergo an evaluation versus when a medical professional may be crossing the line. Unfortunately it is important that you are present as much as you can be when medical staff are examining your child if the circumstances suggest there could be abuse.
7 Keep your eyes out for adults who seem to be making increasing amounts of physical contact with your child. Small touches lead to more invasive touching in private circumstances. For adult professionals who work with your child one-on-one, it is always a good idea to randomly show up unannounced at any time that your child has with that adult. Predators tend to shy away from trying to abuse children who have parents who are like hawks. They prefer the out-of-touch parents.
8 Talk with your child about how any game that involves them taking their clothes off or allowing other people to touch them in – or see – their private areas is not okay.
9 Before your child starts going over to another child’s house, it is important that you meet the other parents and discuss with them what the ground rules should be for what can happen and cannot happen. For example, agree on the ground rule that children cannot be in any room of the house with a closed door.
10 As your child gets older, make sure to discuss with them the fact that no matter how much they look up to an adult, or trust them, that adult should NEVER do any bad touching with them, and should never show the child any of their private parts.
BONUS: Educate your child about the “coercive controller”, the subtle manipulator who first earns someone’s respect or trust, and then will leverage that trust and work to, slowly but surely, become more psychologically intimate with that person, and then take advantage of them emotionally or sexually or physically. Talk with your child about how these people operate and how it can feel to be around them. Often they instill a mixed degree of respect from people and also fear. Read my blog about them by clicking HERE. Go over this blog with your adolescent or teenager.
Are some of these exercises going to make you uncomfortable? Of course. But life is always about a risk-benefit analysis. What are the risks of not doing these exercises…?
BOTTOM LINE: You cannot give people trust simply because they have a medical degree or are a religious person, because they “seem so nice”, or have worked with hundreds of kids. NO ONE SHOULD BE SO REVERED THAT YOU ARE NOT WATCHING THEM CLOSELY.
Part of the job of being a good parent that you signed up for is to have a level of concern even for things you don’t want to think about. Remember, most commonly someone is sexually abused by someone they already trust, often quite deeply. Predators can be elite level “trust earners”.
Predators prey on the children of parents who avoid doing the kinds of exercises I have prescribed above.
Sexual predators unfortunately can be the coaches, priests, or sometimes even the doctor. Do you need to be paranoid? No. Do you need to be hyper-vigilant and accept the fact that you have to be constantly vetting the adults who have contact with your children? Absolutely.
Unfortunately we as parents have to walk a line between being appropriately trusting and always retaining a small degree of paranoia. I’ll take a little paranoia over the other options, any day…I hope you will too!
Of all victims under 18, 2 out of 3 are ages 12-17.
82% of all victims under 18 are female.
Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
Child victims often know the perpetrator. Among cases of child sexual abuse reported to law enforcement: 93% are known to the victim.
80% of perpetrators were a parent.
Other blogs I have written on sexual abuse: