Her small body was shaking, and it took several minutes for her to speak. I reassured her that she had done nothing wrong and this was a safe place if she wanted to talk. Her tiny hands trembled as she told me about his “weird” games and how he tried to “tickle” and “wrestle” with her.
She described him touching her “down there” when she was watching television with him. “I wiggled out of his grip and got away. This time. But he is so scary,” she whispered, her big, brown eyes filling with tears.
As a clinician specializing in trauma who has worked on pediatric abuse cases for many years, I can tell you these types of stories are far too common.
The rates of reported sexual abuse are staggering—every 11 minutes, Child Protective Services substantiates (or finds evidence of) a sexual abuse claim. And these statistics don’t include the vast amount of unreported cases each year.
As terrifying as abuse is, there are some things that we can do to prevent it and keep our children safer.
1. Trust your instincts.
Often, while working with caregivers (even in the most loving, attentive families), after abuse is disclosed, there is a moment where they share that looking back, there may have been subtle signs that something was “off.” That a family member/coach/neighbor (or someone else with access to their children) for an indescribable reason seemed not quite right.
Of course, when reading this, we understandably think, “No! I would never allow my child around anyone who made me uncomfortable,” but the warning signs can be very subtle and often don’t coalesce until after something happens.
A close connection to someone can sometimes compromise our perception, the feeling that someone we know and trust could never do something that horrible. Sexual abuse is often associated with some “creepy, unknown guy” in the park who tries to grab kids, but in 93% of reported sexual abuse cases children know the perpetrator.
Some predators (this doesn’t happen in all cases of abuse) will begin grooming children before attempting any abuse, to build trust between the child and the abuser.
Some signs of this can be someone paying too much attention to one sibling or finding a way to touch them (tickling, hugging, wrestling), bringing them presents, seeking out alone time (such as offering to babysit or drive them places under the guise of being helpful). On the surface, these things can seem “normal,” but it is intended to ingratiate the abuser to both the caregiver and the child so no one suspects what they may do.
While many victims know their abuser, online predators are a growing problem and they also use grooming tactics to target children.
They attempt to friend a child in a group chat, sometimes posing as someone younger, to gain their trust, hoping it will lead to meeting in real life. They often ask children to talk through private messaging/texting and try to find out where the child lives or goes to school. They try to get children to confide in them and offer gifts or certain opportunities to entice a child to meet in person.
It is also important to remember that grooming also happens with adults. They earn your trust to gain access to your kids.
Caregivers may dismiss their instincts or unwittingly convince themselves they misinterpreted something because nobody wants something this horrible to be true, especially if the abuser is someone we trust.
Feather Berkhower, founder of Parenting Safe Children, reports that parents listening to their instincts is an important part of preventing abuse and that in her work educating communities across the country on sexual abuse, parents of abused children often share they “knew something was off” but may not have listened to their gut instinct. Our intuition can be a “brilliant alarm system” and by not listening to it caregivers do a “tremendous disservice to ourselves, and our children, when we deny it,” Berkhower states.
It is also important that we teach our children to trust their instincts. If someone makes them uncomfortable, they need to know that they can tell their caregivers—no matter who it is that makes them uneasy.
We don’t have to go through life suspicious of everyone, but we should never assume that anyone is safely in the “they would never” category.
2. Have the uncomfortable conversation.
It’s never too early to talk about inappropriate touching, secrets, and what to do if something happens.
Rochel Leah Bernstein, founder of the Child Safety Pledge, an organization dedicated to fighting sexual abuse, discusses the importance of parents creating a dialogue with their children. “It is imperative that we elevate this issue and make it a regular part of our conversations as parents. We talk about so many things as caregivers, but when it comes to childhood sexual abuse we are often unwilling to talk about it, but we must empower ourselves with knowledge about prevention, learn to detect the signs of abuse, and create safe spaces in our homes and communities to enable us to protect our children.”
Starting when children are young, teach them the correct names of their body parts and in age appropriate terms, talk with them about acceptable and unacceptable forms of touching.
Children with knowledge of their bodies are more likely to tell someone if they have been sexually abused.
According to the Nuffield Foundation, convicted child abusers reported that children who can talk about their bodies are less likely to be targeted since they are more likely to report abuse.
3. Talk to kids about secrets.
Sexual abuse thrives on secrecy and shame. It’s incredibly important that caregivers discuss with their children what a secret is and if they are ever told to keep a secret from their caregivers (or if they’re threatened that if they tell the secret then their family will be harmed), they should still tell you right away.
Even when children have a close relationship with their parents, intense fear of disclosing abuse can paralyze them into staying quiet. Children often worry they won’t be believed and are fearful of what will happen when people find out about the abuse (for instance, if they report an abusive coach, how will their team react?).
While sexual abuse often happens between a child and adult—it can also happen between children. Children can also be exposed to pornography/sexually explicit material, particularly when there is a lack of adult supervision.
Sleepover parties/unsupervised after school time can pose a higher risk. If your child is going to a sleepover, it’s important to assess what type of supervision there will be and always make sure you have a safety word— something that immediately lets you know your child feels uncomfortable or is in danger.
Understandably, children are curious about their bodies—that is expected, but if your child has knowledge of things of a sexual nature that would be inappropriate for them to know about, it may not just be something they “heard” on the playground. This can be a sign of being exposed to inappropriate material.
In one case, a young child I worked with had been making very odd sounds loudly in class. When he was asked about it, he replied, “It’s the sound people make when they have sex.” During our investigation, we uncovered he was spending unsupervised time at a classmate’s house— and those parents left graphic, sexual material on the iPad the kids were using.
And one of those parents was a registered sex offender.
4. Notice the nuances.
If your child’s behavior changes— they act out in uncharacteristic ways, there are changes in school, in their hygiene, they appear depressed/withdrawn, have nightmares, are uncomfortable with physical contact or express strong reservations about going somewhere (for example, all of a sudden they no longer want to play on their sports team)—these can be signs of possible abuse.
5. Time is precious.
Caregivers may be unsure of exactly what to do when they first find out about abuse. No matter how angry/devastated a caregiver may understandably be, it’s important to help the child feel safe, make sure they know they are believed and report the abuse.
Immediately seek help by going to their pediatrician, their school social worker (both are mandated reporters and know how to proceed), child protective services or the police.
Ensure children (and caregivers) receive counseling. At times, with very young children, some caregivers may think that since the child is so young maybe they won’t remember what happened—seek help anyway—no matter what age your child is.
Waiting to report/not seeking help can delay children (and caregivers) ability to heal from the trauma. If no action is taken, children can feel they weren’t believed/protected and they’re now expected to act as if nothing happened.
As caregivers, we can’t always control everything, but if we begin an early (and ongoing) dialogue, trust our instincts and recognize the warning signs, we improve our chances of protecting our children when they need it most.