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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

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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  1. Excellent tips and I need to order that book. I try to talk to my kids regularly about it but you can never be too careful.

    • And you can never talk too much with your kids! Kids provide teachable moments every day. Look for them and have fun with them!

  2. Growing up, I was pretty oblivious to so much of it and I feel very fortunate I had a safe environment. However, may of my friends had very different experiences and several have banned their kids from ever going to sleepovers (where a lot of the abuse occurred). My kids are almost 6 and 8 and have never been to a sleepover, in large part because none of their friends have them. I’m not saying they’re bad but it makes it that much easier for me to safeguard my kiddos.

    But I always wonder how much I should be doing? I’ve never let them go play with a friend from school unless I’m well acquainted with the parent. How are other people handling it?

    • That’s great that you get acquainted with your kids friends parents! That’s a step toward raising and “off limits” kid! The next step is having an open dialogue about safety rules you will both follow when watching each others children i.e, intervening in children’s sexual play, doors open vs. shut on play dates, kids keeping secrets etc. And then of course, teaching your children their own body-safety rules!

  3. I have yet to allow my 10 yr old to stay over at any friend’s house unless we are already friends with both parents. Maybe I’m paranoid, but being a child of abuse myself, I cant bring myself to allowing it….

    • It is a personal decision whether you allow your children to do sleepovers or not. The good news is that by having open candid conversations about body safety with all your kids caregivers, your children are less vulnerable! Remember to include your children onto your prevention team by teaching them their own body-safety rules.

  4. I totally agree with you not only knowing the parents but older siblings and any other relatives who might live in the house! The statistics are alarming to me as a mother on how many kids are abused so thank you for your posting and the information!

  5. We completely screen, and sleepovers are a no-no. They are only young for a little while, and I don’t mind being the ‘bad guy’ for those years to keep them safe. My kids are my greatest accomplishment, and I intend to ‘Momma-Bear’ them until the day I die.

  6. This is the most amazing workshop to take! Feather Berkower is such an informed educator on child sexual abuse and predators. I highly recommend taking one of her workshops. It is one of the best things I have done as a parent to educate myself on this subject. Her book is great too!!!

  7. We’ve educated our kids about behaviors that are appropriate and inappropriate from a very early age. You have to in this world. We’ve also taught them that it’s okay to be ‘impolite’ when they are being made to feel uncomfortable by others, and do whatever it takes to get out of the situation. We also question them after they’ve had a playdate where we are not present and really have always kept our communication open. It’s amazing what they will tell you if you just ASK, LISTEN, and DON’T OVERREACT at what they tell you. I think the most common perps are people the child knows. JMO.

    • You are doing an excellent job! Especially with giving your kids an exception to the rule about politeness.
      Keep it up!

  8. I don’t allow sleep overs either. I have though gone to my six year old’s best friends home and crashed on the couch while she and her friend were in her room.

  9. I’m a firm believer in not allowing the girls to stay with just anyone. We allow the girls to stay with a handful of adults each of us know and trust. No other adults are allowed to be present during those times and no teenagers either. Sleepovers will probably be off the list for quite a while unless we know both parents for a long time.

  10. Thanks for this information-packed post. I’ve read Feather’s book. The advice here just scratches the surface of all the guidance that you will find in her book, Off Limits. Our lives are busy, but reading this book – or attending one of Feather’s workshops – will be one of the best investments of time that you can make for your child’s safety. Don’t be scared, be smart and be prepared.

  11. Teenagers don’t come to mind when you think about child abusers, but I’ve heard that they are the fastest growing group of abusers. Unfortunately, we know a family that was great friends with their neighbors, knew them for 5 years, and one day the son (14) was babysitting their daughter (5) and molested her.

    Just because you know the family and are good friends means very little. In my opinion, you HAVE to educate your child because as parents we just don’t know where the threat will come from and no amount of screening or familiarity can guarantee their safety.

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