We have to believe that it happens
Trigger warning: This article contains a story and description of child sexual abuse.
The very thought of it makes us nauseous. The idea that a child—our child—could be sexually abused is so upsetting that we can't bear to think about it. But the devastating reality is that we must.
I had the honor of speaking to a mother who lived through this. She shared her story here: The story of her son who was sexually abused by his babysitter.
This mother's bravery, candidness and resolve humbled me deeply. And I'll be honest—it took me a long time to sit down and write this article. Because how on earth can you do justice to this family's experience?
The heart-breaking answer is that you can't.
There is nothing that can make this go away for this mother and her family. What we can do though—what she wants—is to share her story.
Since her experience, she has become an advocate, for her family and for others. We are so grateful for her insight on ways to feel empowered and protect your family. Here's what she shared:
1. We have to believe that it happens
Wrapping our minds around the possibility of something awful happening to our children is incredibly difficult. But the first step in preventing it is acknowledging that it could happen. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that one out of six boys and one of four girls are sexually abused as children. Eighty-four percent of incidents happen in the child's home, and as many as 95% of the abusers have prior relationships with the families.
The National Center for Victims of Crimes shares that it's also important to know that "child sexual abuse is not solely restricted to physical contact—such abuse could include noncontact abuse, such as exposure, voyeurism and child pornography."
Symptoms of child abuse may include genital discomfort or infection, difficult or painful bowel movements, or behavioral signs such as depression, anger, bed-wetting, nightmares, fear or sudden change in activity level.
The scope of this problem is huge. We simply cannot ignore it.
2. No secrets in our family
As abusers will often tell the child to keep their activities a secret, it's important to communicate—to everyone—that your family does not keep secrets. This means telling your children, and anyone who has contact with them, that "our family does not keep secrets."
Differentiate between surprises and secrets. Expert Jayneen Sanders told Motherly, "Talk about 'happy surprises' instead such as not telling Granny about her surprise birthday party. Compare this with 'unsafe' secrets such as someone touching their private parts. Make sure your child knows that if someone does ask them to keep an unsafe secret that they must tell someone."
3. Talk about it. To everyone. A lot.
It's normal to feel uncomfortable about this. Talking about sex, body parts and abuse is simply not something we are used to doing, and it feels awkward—especially when it involves our children. But we have to talk about it. All the time. The way to change the awkwardness of it is to just start.
It gets easier, and eventually, it just becomes second nature.
For the mom I spoke with, this means telling everyone who comes in contact with her kids that they are teaching their kids about body safety and that their family does not keep secrets.
She wrote, "Have this conversation with the adults at school (teachers, aides, principals, tutors), babysitters, your parents and in-laws, your siblings and cousins, camp counselors, parents of your kids' friends (yes, all of your kids' friends), and every other adult or teenager who has access to your kids."
4. Be loud and clear
The mother I spoke to said that one of the most important steps she has taken has been "to unambiguously communicate to everyone around [her] children that we are alert and vigilant and OUR CHILDREN ARE NOT PREY."
The Children's Assessment Center agrees, stating that "Perpetrators frequently seek out children who are particularly trusting and work proactively to establish a trusting relationship before abusing them."
An abuser is less likely to target a child when they know that the family has a firm "we don't keep secrets" policy, and when they know that the family openly and regularly talks about body safety and appropriate relationships.
5. Listen, truly listen
In our very busy lives, it's so easy to half-listen to our kids or dismiss what they are saying as innocent child-ramblings. And while it often is, children may also be trying to tell us something they don't understand or don't have the words to describe.
When your child speaks to you, listen. If something strikes you as unusual or off, dig deeper. You can seek professional help from a counselor to guide you through these conversations. If your alarm bell goes off, listen to it.
6. Teach body safety routinely
The mom wrote, "Body safety" is a concept you need to instill into your child as routinely as you teach them not to touch a hot stove or to look both ways before crossing the street. If you introduce it early enough, it won't even register to them as novel or unusual."
Jayneen Sanders explains that this means:
- Teaching kids the real names for body parts
- Talking about the difference between private and public parts of the body
- Creating a safety network of three to five trusting adults children can talk to
- Discussing feelings openly, including the feeling of being 'unsafe'
- Empowering them to tell you when they do feel unsafe
Experts also recommend that we avoid using the terms 'good-touch/bad-touch,' because the truth is that sometimes, 'bad-touch' feels good to a child. Instead, use 'okay touch/not-okay touch,' or 'safe touch/not-safe touch.'
This is overwhelming and so hard to think about. The mom wrote, "If you're panicking right now about the things you haven't done, I'll tell you what the child abuse expert told us: It's never too late to start doing any of this."
So while it's uncomfortable and unknown, we just have to start. One conversation at a time. We have to listen, and we have to support each other. It's not easy. But it's so worth it.
If you or your child are in immediate danger, call 911, or visit The National Domestic Abuse Hotline.
If you suspect that someone you know is being abused, you can learn about how to report it here.
If you have gone through this, please know that you are not alone. And it's not too late for you or your child either. There is help available to you. You can find a list of psychologists and counselors to help you here.
[Originally published June 4, 2018]