FEW of us want to dwell on the subject of sexual abuse of children. Parents shudder at the very thought of it! Such abuse, however, is a frightening and unpleasant reality in today’s world, and its effects on children can be devastating. Is the matter worth considering? Well, what would you be willing to give for the sake of your child’s safety? Learning about the unpleasant realities of abuse is surely a small price to pay. Such knowledge can really make a difference.
Do not let the plague of abuse rob you of your courage. At the very least, you have power that your child does not have—strengths that it will take years, even decades, for your child to gain. The passing years have brought you a fund of knowledge, experience, and wisdom. The key is to enhance those strengths and put them to use in protecting your child. We will discuss three basic steps that every parent can take. They are as follows: (1) Become your child’s first line of defense against abuse, (2) give your child some needed background education, and (3) equip your child with some basic protective tools.
Are You the First Line of Defense?
The primary responsibility for protecting children against abuse belongs to parents, not to children. So educating parents comes before educating children. If you are a parent, there are a few things you need to know about child abuse. You need to know who abuse children and how they go about it. Parents often think of molesters as strangers who lurk in the shadows, seeking ways to kidnap and rape children. Such monsters certainly do exist. The news media bring them to our attention very often. However, they are relatively rare. In about 90 percent of the cases of sexual abuse of a child, the perpetrator is someone the child already knows and trusts.
Naturally, you do not want to believe that an affable neighbor, teacher, health-care worker, coach, or relative could lust after your child. In truth, most people are not like that. There is no need to become suspicious of everybody around you. Still, you can protect your child by learning how the typical abuser operates.—See the box on page 6.
Knowing such tactics can make you, the parent, better prepared to act as the first line of defense. For instance, if someone who appears more interested in children than in adults singles out your child for special attention and gifts or offers free babysitting or private excursions with your child, what will you do? Decide that the person must be a molester? No. Do not be quick to jump to conclusions. Such behavior may be quite innocent. Nonetheless, it can put you on the alert. The Bible says: “Anyone inexperienced puts faith in every word, but the shrewd one considers his steps.”—Proverbs 14:15.
Remember, any offer that sounds too good to be true may be just that. Carefully screen anyone who volunteers to spend time alone with your child. Let such an individual know that you are likely to check on your child at any time. Melissa and Brad, young parents of three boys, are cautious about leaving a child alone with an adult. When one son had music lessons at home, Melissa told the instructor: “I’ll be in and out of the room while you’re here.” Such vigilance may sound extreme, but these parents would rather be safe than sorry.
Be actively involved in your child’s activities, friendships, and schoolwork. Learn all the details about any planned excursion. One mental-health professional who spent 33 years working with cases of sexual abuse notes that he has seen countless cases that could have been prevented by simple vigilance on the parents’ part. He quotes one convicted molester as saying: “Parents literally give us their children. . . . They sure made it easy for me.” Remember, most molesters prefer easy targets. Parents who are actively involved in their children’s lives make their children difficult targets.
Another way to act as your child’s first line of defense is to be a good listener. Children will rarely disclose abuse directly; they are too ashamed and worried about the reaction. So listen carefully, even for subtle clues.* If your child says something that concerns you, calmly use questions to draw him out.* If he says that he does not want a certain babysitter to come back, ask why. If he says that an adult plays funny games with him, ask him: “What kind of game? What does he do?” If he complains that someone tickled him, ask him, “Where did he tickle you?” Do not be quick to dismiss a child’s answers. Abusers tell a child that no one will believe him; all too often, that is true. And if a child has been abused, being believed and supported by a parent is a big step toward recovery.
Be your child’s first line of defense
Give Your Child Background Education
One reference work on the subject of child abuse quotes a convicted molester as saying: “Give me a kid who knows nothing about sex, and you’ve given me my next victim.” Those chilling words are a useful reminder to parents. Children who are ignorant about sex are much easier for molesters to fool. The Bible says that knowledge and wisdom can deliver us “from the man speaking perverse things.” (Proverbs 2:10-12) Is that not what you want for your child? Then, as your second basic step in protecting him, do not hold back from teaching him about this important subject.
How, though, do you go about it? More than a few parents find the subject of sex a bit awkward to discuss with children. Your child may find the subject even more awkward, and he is not likely to bring it up with you. So take the initiative. Melissa says: “We started early, with naming the body parts. We used real words, not baby words, to show them that there is nothing funny or shameful about any part of their body.” Instruction about abuse follows naturally. Many parents simply tell their children that the parts of their body that a bathing suit covers are private and special.
Says Heather, mentioned in the preceding article: “Scott and I told our son that his penis is private, personal, and not a toy. It’s not for anyone to play with—not for Mommy, not for Daddy, not even for a doctor. When we take him to the doctor, I explain that he’s only going to make sure everything is OK, and that’s why he may touch there.” Both parents take part in these little talks from time to time, and they assure the child that he can always come to them and tell them if anyone touches him in a way that’s wrong or makes him feel uncomfortable. Experts in child care and abuse prevention recommend that all parents have similar talks with their children.
Many have found the book Learn From the Great Teacher* to be a real help in teaching this subject. Chapter 32, “How Jesus Was Protected,” has a direct yet comforting message for children on the dangers of abuse and the importance of staying safe. “The book has given us a perfect way to reinforce what we have told our children personally,” says Melissa.
In today’s world children need to know that there are some people who want to touch children or get children to touch them in ways that are wrong. These warnings need not fill children with fear or make them distrust all adults. “It’s just a safety message,” says Heather. “And it’s one message among many others, most of them having nothing to do with abuse. It hasn’t made my son fearful at all.”
Your child’s education should include a balanced view of obedience. Teaching a child to obey is an important and difficult lesson. (Colossians 3:20) However, such lessons can go too far. If a child is taught that he must always obey any adult, regardless of the circumstances, he is vulnerable to abuse. Molesters are quick to notice when children are overly compliant. Wise parents teach their children that obedience is relative. For Christians, that is not as complicated as it may sound. It simply means saying to them: “If anybody tells you to do something that Jehovah God says is wrong, you don’t have to do it. Even Mommy or Daddy should never tell you to do something that Jehovah says is wrong. And you can always tell either Mommy or Daddy if someone tries to get you to do something wrong.”
Finally, let your child know that no one should ask him to keep a secret from you. Tell him that if anyone asks him to keep any kind of secret from you, he should always come and let you know. No matter what he is told—even if scary threats are made or he has done something wrong himself—it is always OK to come to Mommy or Daddy and tell them all about it. Such instruction need not scare your child. You can reassure him that most people would never do such things—touch him where they shouldn’t, ask him to disobey God, or ask him to keep a secret. Like a planned escape route in case of fire, these are just-in-case messages and will probably never be needed.
Give your child background education
Equip Your Child With Some Basic Protective Tools
The third step we will discuss is to give your child some simple actions to take in case someone tries to take advantage of him when you are not there. One method that is often recommended is like a game. Parents ask “What if . . . ?” and the child answers. You might say, “What if we were at the store together and we got separated? How would you find me?” The child’s answer may not be exactly what you would hope for, but you can guide him along with further questions, such as “Can you think of anything you could do that would be safer?”
You can use similar questions to ask a child what the safest response would be if someone tried to touch him in a wrong way. If the child is easily alarmed by such questions, you might try telling a story about another child. For example: “A little girl is with a relative she likes, but then he tries to touch her where he shouldn’t. What do you think she should do to stay safe?”
Equip your child with basic protective tools
What should you teach your child to do in situations like the one above? Notes one author: “A firm ‘No!’ or ‘Don’t do that!’ or ‘Leave me alone!’ does wonders to frighten the seductive offender into retreat and into rethinking his or her choice of victim.” Help your child act out brief scenarios so that he feels confident to refuse loudly, get away quickly, and report to you whatever has happened. A child who seems to understand the training thoroughly may easily forget it within a few weeks or months. So repeat this training regularly.
All the child’s direct caregivers, including the males—whether father, stepfather, or other male relatives—should be part of these discussions. Why? Because all involved in such teaching are, in effect, promising the child that they will never commit such acts of abuse. Sadly, much sexual abuse occurs right within the confines of the family. The following article will discuss how you can make your family a safe haven in an abusive world.
Experts note that many abused children give nonverbal clues that something is wrong. For example, if a child suddenly regresses to behavior he had outgrown some time earlier, such as bed-wetting, clinginess, or fear of being alone, he may be sending a signal that something serious is upsetting him. Such symptoms should not be taken as definite proof of abuse. Calmly draw out your child to learn the cause of the distress so that you can offer comfort, reassurance, and protection.
For the sake of simplicity, both the abuser and the victim are referred to here as males. Regardless of gender, though, the same principles apply.
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.