Some Tips for Keeping Kids Safe
By Lisa W. Shepherd
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I have thought a lot about what could have perhaps been done to prevent what happened to me and also what might have helped me tell someone sooner. My abuse happened when I was quite young, but I never talked about it until I was 23. My older brother was also sexually abused at a young age. At age 25, he took his own life. It wasn’t until after he had died that we discovered he had been abused. My mom was also a victim of childhood sexual abuse but didn’t speak about it until her 50s. From looking back on my own experience, my family’s experiences, and hearing others’ experiences, I think I’ve learned some things that could hopefully prevent this from happening to other children and also help those children who have been abused be able to tell.
1. The number one thing you can do to help your children and any other children you know is to BE AWARE. Abuse does happen! I am surprised at how many people think that sexual abuse is a rare thing. Unfortunately, it is very common, even in Utah. The first step to preventing sexual abuse is to be aware of the problem. Denying its existence will only keep you from seeing the warning signs and also keep you from trying to protect your children.
2. KNOW WHERE YOUR KIDS ARE. Teach your kids to tell you where they’re going, who they’re with, and what they’ll be doing. Make sure there is responsible adult supervision and that they’re participating in appropriate activities. This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but it needs to be pointed out. Children are getting into pornography at younger and younger ages, which can lead to sexual abuse. Be aware of what shows they’re watching on TV and what they’re doing on the internet. Don’t allow them to go into chat rooms, as there are many perpetrators waiting there to catch your kids. Be careful of cell phones. Kids are using them to pass pornographic pictures and messages. Be careful of friends they have. Beware of sleepovers. When I was young, I had many fun sleepovers where nothing bad happened, but I have heard many horror stories of inappropriate activities at sleepovers. Use caution when considering allowing your child to sleep somewhere else.
3. Don’t allow kids to be alone with an adult you don’t know well and trust. And TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. If you have a bad feeling about someone, don’t allow your child to be alone with that person. This is not judging that person; it’s protecting your child. If you have a bad feeling about your child going somewhere, don’t allow them to go. It’s always better to be safe than sorry in that kind of situation. Don’t be afraid of offending someone or of upsetting your child by not letting them go somewhere. Their safety should always come first.
4. TALK TO YOUR KIDS. Know what’s going on in their lives. Are they happy? Is something bothering them? Do they enjoy school? Do they have good friends? Be involved in their lives. The closer you are to them, the easier it will be for you to catch signals of anything that’s not right.
5. EDUCATE YOUR KIDS. They need to know what sexual abuse is, what is appropriate and what is not. There are a couple of great children’s books that can help with this. They are Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Spelman and The Right Touch by Sandy Kleven, LCSW. Read through the books first yourself before reading them to your children. You know your child’s maturity level and can judge what they’re ready to hear about. But even at a very young age, you can teach them what appropriate and inappropriate behavior is.
6. TEACH YOUR KIDS TO RESPECT OTHERS. Never tell a child they are a “wuss” or a “wimp,” even jokingly. Do not degrade them in any way, or allow them to degrade siblings or friends. Children need to be built up. Perpetrators pick children with low self-esteem, and it is those with low self-esteem who are unlikely to tell. They feel they deserve to be treated badly, and that it is their fault. If a child is being told he or she is a “wuss” or a “wimp,” they are not going to want to tell you someone has been hurting them out of fear you will think they are weak. Be careful about how you treat your children. By treating them respectfully, they will learn they deserve to be treated respectfully and also treat others with respect.
7. This is extremely important, not only in preventing abuse, but also in getting your child to talk about abuse if it has happened. Many people will tell you that your kids need to be able to trust you, that if you have a trusting relationship with your child, they will be able to tell you if they are ever sexually abused. This is not true. Yes, it is important to have a good relationship with your child and for them to be able to trust you, but as I have looked back at my own experience, I have realized that didn’t work for me. I always had a good relationship with my mom–I talked to her about nearly anything–anything but my abuse. It wasn’t because I didn’t trust her. It was because I was terrified of my abusers and their threats, but it was also because I had never heard anyone in my family talk about sexual abuse. I’m sure I had heard of it, but I didn’t know it was common, and I didn’t know any specific person who it had happened to.
It wasn’t until after my mom told us about her own childhood sexual abuse that I felt safe enough to talk about my own. When I saw her come forward, I not only saw her relief, but I also saw the support of my immediate family. They believed her and were kind to her. That was what made the difference for me. There is little doubt in my mind that my brother, like many victims, felt very alone in his struggle, that he felt like he was the only one that that kind of thing happened to. If a child believes they are the only one something like that happens to, they are not going to be very likely to talk about it with anyone. I suggest talking to your kids about sexual abuse, not only as to what it is, but also talk about supporting those who have been abused. Just as you need to be aware of abuse and any other potential dangers to your children, they also need to be aware. If there’s a story on the news about a child who was sexually abused, talk about it with your kids. If you know someone personally who has been abused, it might be a good idea to have that person talk to your kids about it a little bit, if the kids are comfortable with that person. Of course, it’s not necessary to give any specifics or details, but it can be helpful to talk about it in simple language they can understand. Ask them if they have questions. BE OPEN ABOUT SEXUAL ABUSE.
8. ASK QUESTIONS. Ask your child if anyone has ever touched them in a way that has made them feel uncomfortable. Let them know that if someone does do that to them, they should come tell you immediately.
9. TELL THEM IT’S OKAY TO SAY NO. Children are often intimidated by adults and older children. Tell them it’s okay to say no if someone is trying to get them to do something that makes them uncomfortable. Also, let them know that they do not need to hug or kiss anyone, even family members, if it makes them feel uncomfortable. Don’t force physical affection on them.
10. BE PATIENT. You need to realize that perpetrators threaten their victims. They may say they will kill them or a family member or a pet if they tell. Perpetrators will come up with anything to get a child to stay quiet. If you suspect your child may have been abused, but they refuse to talk about it, be patient. Watch the child and their activities closely. Reassure them that it’s okay to tell you anything, even if someone has threatened them. DON’T ask leading questions, like, “Did so-and-so do something to you?”
11. HELP YOUR KIDS FIND WAYS TO EXPRESS THEMSELVES. Children need outlets for their emotions. Teach them that all emotions are okay; it’s how we handle those emotions that can sometimes cause problems. Let them try out new things. Drawing and writing are great ways to express emotions, but help them find anything they like that can help them express themselves. It’s important in helping them learn how to communicate their feelings. If they draw a picture, ask them about the picture. Have them tell you about the sky in the picture or the little girl. It can get them talking. Don’t over analyze, but be aware of patterns that may develop. Feelings that are bottled up will be expressed eventually. It’s important to find a healthy outlet to prevent destructive behavior to themselves or others.
12. Last, if your child comes to you and says someone has sexually abused them, BELIEVE THEM! It is extremely rare for a child to lie about sexual abuse. Thank them for telling you; reassure them that they did the right thing in telling you. Do not immediately talk about what you’re going to do to the perpetrator. It may take time for them to even tell you who did it, but be careful about showing your anger. It may frighten your child. Also, be aware that it is very unlikely for a perpetrator to admit to abuse. Don’t let that keep you from believing your child. Most of all, listen to them, support them, cry with them, and love them.