Protecting our children from sexual predators requires shifting our focus from apprehending perpetrators to recognizing danger signs and taking preventive measures, experts say.
Every year, at least 300,000 children are victims of sexual abuse, the American Psychological Association (APA) estimates, reporting that roughly one in every four girls and one in every six boys will be sexually violated. Yet given that predators are often public figures, such as sports coaches or teachers, or members of our own families and circles of friends, it can be difficult to recognize potential for danger.
Informing ourselves and our children about how to: identify people who pose a threat; recognize situations that jeopardize safety; and respond to inappropriate behavior is, therefore, key to prevention. Here are eight ways you and your children can protect yourselves:
1. Acknowledge that sexual abuse happens everywhere, every day and that there is a high risk of it occurring to your child
2. Recognize that if your child is violated, you will likely know the predator.
He or she will be someone in your family or your community who has frequent contact with your child.
3. Discard the stereotype of child sexual predators as shady characters lurking behind bushes.
Most child predators are trusted individuals, such as family members, teachers, coaches, family friends and babysitters.
4. Be suspicious of anyone who offers to spend time alone with your child.
Try to ensure that your child is always in the company of other children and/or their parents whenever they are with adults who may pose a risk.
5. Create a family plan to educate your children about potential danger and give them tools to respond to situations that may put them in jeopardy.
A family plan might include the following:
- Discussion of what is and is not healthy and safe touch. The University of Missouri has a useful list of ways to help your child understand “good and bad” touch, including an exercise you can use to develop your child’s sense of physical autonomy
- Discussion of nonphysical types of abuse, such as the sharing of pornography with minors.
- Coaching your child to say no to any verbal or physical overture that feels scary or uncomfortable
- Coaching your child to leave any situation that doesn’t feel safe and to tell you about the incident right away
- Assuring your child that nothing bad will happen if he or she tells you about any inappropriate behavior experienced
- Making it clear that any such behavior is not the child’s fault
- Instructing your child to always tell you if they feel uneasy with anyone
- Setting and respecting clear boundaries with regard to physical expressions of affection, such as hugging or kissing relatives and friends─making it clear to everyone that doing so is the child’s prerogative
6. Know the warning signs that your child has been sexually violated.
These may include:
- Behavior changes such as withdrawal, fearfulness, or crying without provocation
- Night sweats, including screaming, trembling and/or nightmares
- Regression to more infantile behavior, such as bedwetting, thumb sucking or clinging
- Loss of appetite and/or other eating problems
- Poorly explained injuries, such as bruises, cuts, genital pain/bleeding, rashes
- Sudden resistance to being left alone with particular people
- Unusual interest in or awareness of body parts, sexual matters and/or inappropriate expression of affection
- Mood swings
7. Trust your instincts.
Often, we worry what others will think if our child refuses to kiss Uncle Joe goodbye or hangs back when a family friend leans in for a hug. If your child is reluctant to show physical affection with anyone, however, respecting the child’s feelings is your first priority. And any adult who is aware of why you do not require the child to observe customary social practice will understand and respect this.
8. Create a culture of awareness and support.
Children who are afraid to tell you that they didn’t pass a test or forgot to do their chores, likely won’t confide in you about uncomfortable feelings or sexual advances either. Encouraging your child to discuss all of his or her feelings with regard to everything from the most minor of concerns to major, establishes you as a go-to person when your child has serious issues, such as sexual abuse or the potential for harm.