What every parent should know to prevent sexual abuse
Child sexual abusers count on your silence and discomfort, so if we’re going to prevent child sexual abuse, we must shatter this silence by learning the facts and empowering our children. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, so I sat down with Feather Berkower, co-author of Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse, on what it means to build kids, homes, and communities that are off limits!
1. How do you raise an “off limits” child?
To raise an off-limits child, parents screen all caregivers and empower their children with body-safety rules. I’ve received a bunch of emails recently from parents raising kids who are off-limits. It’s amazing what happens when parents teach their kids body-safety rules and talk with every caregiver (prospective and current) about their child’s body-safety rules.
Here’s an example. A couple was out on a date and their son was with a sitter, someone whom they had “screened.” When they got home, the sitter said she was giving their son a bath and the four year old said, “No one is allowed to touch my private parts, so I will wash my own penis.” That’s an off-limits kid. His parents are teaching him body-safety rules such as, “No one is allowed to touch your private
2. What makes a child vulnerable to sexual abuse? / Which kids do abusers target?
All children are vulnerable to sexual abuse; however, child sexual abusers look for kids in particular who aren’t educated about body safety, don’t feel paid attention to, will keep secrets, have been taught to obey authority figures without exception, lack self-esteem, or have difficulties with perception and judgment.
3. Who are child sexual abusers?
Contrary to popular belief, child abusers are not dirty old men, but rather ordinary people. Offenders can be anyone and usually the child knows the offender long before the sexual abuse takes place. In fact, up to 60 percent of abuse is committed by family members. It’s also important to note that up to 50 percent of all sexual abuse is committed by juveniles, which means it’s important for parents to have really good conversations about body safety with any teens and young adults who may be involved in their kid’s lives.
4. How common is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is far more prevalent than we’d like to think. One in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18. Put another way, in a graduating class of 1,000 high school seniors, approximately 250 will have survived sexual abuse. But the good news: We can prevent this crime!
5. What are the three most important actions parents can take to prevent sexual abuse?
1. Educate yourself about the grooming process offenders use to gain access.
2. Empower your kids with body-safety rules.
3. Screen every single caregiver in your child’s life.
My book, Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse, spells it all out in easy to digest pieces. I encourage your readers to teach their kids the seven body-safety rules and use the questions in the book when taking with prospective caregivers. The more we speak up, the safer our children.
6. How do you talk with children about body safety in a way that won’t scare them?
Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to talk about body safety in a non-scary, age-appropriate way. And it’s never too early to start. Here’s an example. When you’re bathing your 18-month-old daughter, you might say:
“Mommy is cleaning your back and your legs. Now Mommy is helping you clean your vagina. Your vagina is your private part. You’re the boss of your body.”
As the child gets a little older, you would add to the body-safety rule:
“Your vagina is one of your private parts and no one is allowed to touch your private parts unless you need help cleaning them, or your private parts are hurt or sick and the doctor needs to examine them. And Mommy will always be in the room if the doctor has to look at your private parts.”
One of the Moms who attended my workshop here in Denver told me she’d been teaching body-safety concepts to her two-year-old child and one day the child said, “My vagina is mine!” That’s exactly what you want – that’s an off-limits kid in the making!
7. What are the warning signs that a child has been sexually abused?
The signs will vary by age, and can include emotional, physical, and behavioral signs. A preverbal child can’t use words but may have genital trauma, a startle response, or a general failure to thrive. Children six to 12, on the other hand, could exhibit anything from difficulty concentrating and depression to over-compliance. For a full list of possible signs by age group, you should consult Off Limits.
I do want to be clear though that while it’s important to know the warning signs of abuse, some children don’t show obvious signs; likewise, just because a sign is present does not mean the child is being abused.
8. What organizations are making a difference?
There are some great organizations working to prevent child sexual abuse. Some provide education materials, while others offer prevention programs for children or parents.
On national level, I tip my hat to Stop It Now and Darkness to Light. Here in Colorado (Aurora), we have the Kempe Foundation, which focuses on advocacy and treatment. Of course, most counties have a Child Advocacy Center, whose primary role is to intervene when there is a report, but they are also committed to prevention.
Parenting Safe Children is unique because we focus entirely on parents and professionals, who are in position to teach and reinforce body-safety rules each and every day. We know that prevention works, but to keep kids and communities off-limits to child sexual abusers, everyone has to be willing to speak up – to educate kids, ask organizations about child sexual abuse prevention policies, and invite everyone they know onto their prevention team.
For more body-safety rules and easy-to-follow guidelines for keeping your children “off limits,” read Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse.
Guest blogger Feather Berkower empowers adults to keep children safe from sexual abuse. She presents Parenting Safe Children workshops throughout Colorado and co-authored, Off-Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse. Photo: Jay Kenis