What they are and how they can help us prevent abuse
There are many misconceptions about child sex abuse. Fortunately, educating ourselves about them and separating the fact from the fiction can serve as a powerful tool — both to prevent child molesters from gaining access to our children, and to empower children to come forward after experiencing an inappropriate encounter. The following are five major myths about child sexual abuse, and how awareness of them can help us prevent child molestation and keep children safe.
1. The majority of children are abused by strangers
Far from being the stereotypical grisly, mysterious stranger lurking in the shadows, most perpetrators of child sex abuse are well-received member of the community who are trusted not only by the child, but also by the child’s family. In more than 90% of child sex abuse cases, the child and the child’s family know and trust the abuser. Perpetrators are excellent manipulators, and often pour substantial time and energy into gradually “grooming” their young victims by creating a space that is perceived by the child to be safe, harmonious, and inviting. One of the earliest lessons of childhood- the lesson every parent inculcates his or her child with the moment they are old enough to appreciate and apply it- is ‘stranger danger.’ Children typically know to not approach strangers, to speak with them, to interact with them in any way. Any encounter with a stranger, no matter how benign, is for most children, a classic ‘no-no.’ However, with the danger of sexual abuse lurking more and more within non-threatening, friendly, trust zones created by adults whom the child often knows and loves, a new lesson involving the acceptable boundaries within an interaction must be taught in order for abuse to be prevented. It is thus critical to:
- Teach your child that an abuser may be someone they know and trust
- Speak with your child about what adults can and cannot do-teach your child that some body parts are private.
- Teach your child the names of body parts so that he or she may have the language to speak openly with you and to ask questions.
Because the perpetrator is so often an adult who is trusted, it is not difficult for him to create an isolated, one-on-one situation where he has full access to the child without others present. Reduce the risk of sexual abuse by:
- Eliminating or else reducing the private time your child spends with other adults
- Ensuring any private time with other adults is in a public or semi-public place, where others are present and can supervise
2. You can always spot an abuser. Educated, well-groomed, middle class people do not abuse children
Unfortunately, it is not that easy to spot a child molester. Perpetrators come in every conceivable shape and color. They come from a variety of different background- they can be doctors, teachers, counselors, religious leaders, or relatives. Perhaps the one thing that they do have in common is that they can be deceptively “normal”- in both appearance and behavior. Thus, always take steps to probe beneath the surface of those individuals who have access to your child. You can do this by:
- Playing an active role in your child’s life. If your child plays a sport, attend games and get to know the coach and other parents
- Join a PTA to meet and be acquainted with adults in the community, including teachers and other parents, especially if your children are friends and your child spends time in that family’s home without you being present.
3. Child molesters abuse indiscriminately
Child molesters are often very selective about the children they target, and tend to choose children with family problems, low self esteem, and who are indiscriminate in their trust of others. These children are often easier to mold, groom, and manipulate psychologically. To decrease your child’s chances of being a prime target:
- Actively work to build a sense of confidence, self-reliance, and strength in your child. Be sensitive towards your child’s talents and aspirations, and nurture positive activities that build self esteem and pleasure at a sense of accomplishment
- Spend time with your child and provide affection, as that will make him or her less likely to be manipulated by abusers who lure them in by providing such affection or attentiveness.
- Monitor your child’s internet activities. Many predators target children online, where regular, continuous communication over long periods is both easy and not easily detected by others. Teach your children to never meet in person anyone they speak to online without your knowledge and permission, and to not give up their real name, address, or any other identifying information.
4. Children who are being abused immediately tell their parents
Children are delicate mentally, and can thus be prime targets for psychological manipulation. Child victims of sex abuse are often easily silenced with tactics that instill fear and shame. The abuser may make the child feel that his or her parents would be angry or disappointed if they found out. If the abuser is someone the child loves or has a relationship with, they may be afraid that disclosing the abuse would sever this bond. More often still, some children are too young to understand the nature of the abuse, and fail to report it for that reason. To make early reporting and detection of abuse more likely and to make your child less vulnerable to manipulation by an abuser:
- Talk openly with your children about sex- this lessons the impression that sexuality is something that is secret or taboo. Abusers will often lure a child into silence by speaking of the contact as though it is their little “secret.” Viewing sex as something that can be talked about healthily and in the open will make it less likely that your child will abide by the abuser’s desire for secrecy.
- Reiterate to your children that their body is their own, that they have a right to say “no,” and that others must respect that
- Reiterate that another’s inability to respect that does not reflect on the child- your child must know that abuse is never their own fault. Reiterate that your home is a safe space where they can and should share any inappropriate behavior against them without the fear that you will be angry or disappointed.
5. Children often lie, and those who report abuse often make it up to seek attention
It is very rare for a child to make up an allegation of sexual abuse. If a child has been abused and takes steps to disclose this to you, your immediate reaction is critical in making the child feel safe and supported, or judged and shamed. The later emotions can and often do lead children to recant an allegation for fear of shame or disbelief, and increase the probability that the child will be violated again because they will be less likely to report the abuse. To decrease the risk that a child will shut down after disclosing an episode of abuse to you:
- Never respond with anger or disbelief when a child discloses that he or she has been sexually abused
- Praise the child for his or her courage in choosing to come forward and encourage him or her to tell you more about what happened