8 Ways to Protect Your Children From Sexual Abuse
It is the God-given responsibility of parents to protect their children as best as they can from danger. Many children suffer the horror of sexual abuse and often experience life-long trauma as a result. One of the best ways we can love them is to take practical steps to help ensure their safety. Here are some suggestions to get that started.
1. Talk to them about it early and often
Children are by definition naive. They only grow out of it in two ways: someone teaches them or they learn it by experience. When it comes to sexual abuse, the former is much preferable to the latter. Children won’t know that there are potential dangers unless they are taught that it is so.
You might ask, how old should they be before I talk to them about it? My answer is: if they can talk about concepts at all, you should talk about it. Granted, you won’t broach the subject with a 4 year old the way you would with a 12 year old. But the reality is that most parents wait too long to talk about it rather than starting too early. There are age-appropriate ways to discuss what children can have done to their bodies and by whom. If your children are still quite young, consider buying a copy of God Made All of Me by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb. It’s a great starting place.
2. Consider ditching sleepovers
Focus on the Family’s James Dobson advocated decades ago for avoiding sleepovers. More recently, blogger Tim Challies shared why his family doesn’t do sleepovers. His article has been viewed more than 8 million times and elicited strong reactions both for it and against it (you can read some letters he received here). It is definitely worth considering.
My own experience with sleepovers is mixed. Most of them were innocent, consisting of me and my cousins or friends performing Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior moves on each other while trying not to break the furniture. But there were a few sleepovers where I found myself in a situation that I didn’t want to be in. I was never threatened or abused sexually, but the reality is that bad things happen when kids are together relatively unsupervised. And the thing about sleepovers is that it is hard to find the escape hatch. It’s one thing to have a situation on the playground at school where you can just walk away. It’s quite another to be at someone else’s house at 2am.
3. Monitor their online behaviour
The online world is incredibly dangerous. Children are vulnerable in a number of ways, be it cyber bullying, viewing pornography, or chatting with people they don’t really know. Drawing on my experience as a youth pastor, let me just say this clearly: nothing good happens when children have digital lives that are totally unsupervised. A parent should have access to their child’s digital world. Not only should they have access to it, they should have degrees of control over it.
Consider that teen girls know that the more sexual they are online, they more they will be liked by peers. In a similar way, teens boys live dual lives, being a different person online than they are in real life. This means that parents who think they know their kids are often misguided, because who they are digitally is not the same as who they are personally.
Sexual predators practice what is known as “grooming”, which is building a relationship of trust with a child before even bringing up anything sexual in nature. It is scary to say but many young people are naive and do not realize that the person they are talking to online could actually be someone else entirely.
Again, Tim Challies has some helpful advice. Consider reading and implementing his Porn-Free Family Plan, as well as checking out helpful tools to manage online activity in the home, such as the Circle device. At the very least, do something. To do nothing at all is to invite the most vile parts of humanity directly into your child’s life.
4. Know that “stranger danger” is an exception to the rule
According to some research, 85% of abuse cases are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Often times this is a family member or close friend. While most parents rightly teach their kids to stay away from strangers (more on this below), they think little about protecting them from those closest to the family.
Perhaps this is why stopping sexual abuse is a near-impossible task: assaults come mostly from people who are considered trustworthy. When most people picture a sexual predator, they imagine the creepy looking man handing out suckers from a van. What they typically don’t picture is their brother or nephew. It is sad but true to say that people are very good at hiding the darkest parts of their lives from others around them.
I’m not advocating for paranoia. If taken too far, some might think the only safe place for their children is directly by their side! While that could be true, it is not a practical option in real life. All I am saying is that parents should not be too quick to assume that the danger to their children is always “out there”. Sometimes it is closer to home. Caution and wisdom, not paranoia, should be exercised.
5. Find out what other people are doing to protect your children
Do your children attend church? Do they go to day care? Play in a sports league? Participate in boy scouts? Gymnastics? Other things like these? Of course they do! And just as parents are responsible to protect children, so are other child-care providers.
Parents should not be shy about asking these organizations, what steps are you taking to ensure my child’s safety? Any organization that works with children should have policies in place designed to protect children from sexual abusers. While it’s hard to stop it from ever occurring, is it a no-brainer that sound preventative measures should be in place.
My own church has a “Child Safety & Abuse Policy” that complies with our denomination and insurance company. It includes things like volunteer screening, criminal background checks, annual training, and specific rules such as no adult is allowed to be alone with a child in an enclosed area. If a church or other organization doesn’t have a policy in place that they can refer you to quickly, they are crazy, behind the times, and potentially dangerous. Avoid them.
The safety of children is important. As a parent, don’t be timid in finding out what safety measures are in place where your child is being cared for.
6. Show them this video and talk about it
While most sexual abuse happens at the hands of someone known to the victim, that is not always the case. The video linked above shows how easy it is for children to be swayed by a pleasant stranger who offers them something nice.
It might be a worthwhile exercise to watch the video together and then talk about it. Some points you might want to include are:
- Who is a trustworthy adult to you? (Make a list of names)
- If someone offered you _____ (name something your child loves), should you go with them to get it?
- When is it okay to disobey an adult?
7. Empower your kids to protect themselves
You can only watch over your children so much. At some point they need to be able to defend themselves. Teach your child about their body and empower them to take control over it. Let them know that no one has the right to violate their own body. Teach them that it’s ok to be rude to an adult in some instances.
Also, aim to create an environment of open communication and honesty in the home. Children might be afraid to talk about sexual abuse for a number of reasons:
- They are afraid because their abuser has made threats
- They have been manipulated by the abuser into thinking it’s their little secret
- They are worried that mom or dad will be upset with them
- They are ashamed
- They secretly enjoy the encounters
Other reasons could be mentioned. The point is that open dialogue between children and parents is vital. This means that parents:
- Should talk about taboo subjects so children know they are not off limits
- Should not freak out if their child confides in them about personal things
- Should ask their children about secrets they might be keeping
- Should consider sharing their own stories to age-appropriate children
- Should listen and look for warning signs
8. Trust your gut
As a parent, remember that you are in charge. At times you may doubt yourself or be told by others that you are going overboard, but you are not accountable to them. Ultimately you are accountable to God, to your child, to the law, and to your own conscience. There will be times when you don’t necessarily have concrete evidence to back a certain decision, but in the end it is usually best to go with your gut. I don’t necessarily believe in magic parent vibes or anything like that. But often we are able to sense that something is not right before we can articulate why. In such cases, I think it is best to usually err on the side of caution. After all, you would rather have had nothing to worry about than regret that you didn’t listen to the alarms in your head.
Have any other suggestions? Comment them below. Let’s keep our kids safe out there!