The recent news of Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky being found guilt on 45 counts of sexual abuse should be a wake-up call for us all. We: parents, grandparents, camp counselors, teachers, youth group leaders, must take steps to keep kids safe. We must change the way we talk about sexual abuse. We must change the way we respond to children who have been sexually abused. When a child devulges the painful secret of abuse to an adult, we must take their words seriously.
Children rarely make up stories about abuse.
Reading the Sandusky trial testimony, it's understandable how confusing abuse can be for a child. Especially when the abuser is someone who is popular and well thought of, an individual who has made a conserted effort to win a child's trust by lavishing him with attention and gifts. The best way to manage child abuse is to arm your child with confidence in himself — and trust in you.
Children must know that, if they share their secret, they will be believed.
Kids usually don't have the language to describe what has happened to them, especially during the grooming phase, when acts are more nebulous. But children are most likely to tell about abuse when parents or caregivers have created a safe environment to talk about problems. It's also important to have a conversation about good touch/bad touch. This means reaching children when they are young, as young as 4 or 5. A child must know that his or her private parts are his or hers alone. A child must know that it is never okay for another adult to touch them inappropriately. And a child must know they can talk to you about any worries they have.
HOW TO TALK ABOUT GOOD TOUCH/BAD TOUCH
What does an abuser look like?
More than 90 percent of sexually abused children are abused by someone they know and trust: a step-father, an uncle, a priest, a youth leader, a coach. It can be anyone who sees your child when he or she is away from you.
How does sexual abuse take place?
Abusers are manipulators, they test children. They typically start by befriending the child, gaining his or her trust. They test the child with seemingly innocent acts first, by having the child sit on their lap or by brushing up against them. They stroke the child's hair. They might enjoy horseplay or roughhousing with your child. If touch takes place and your child is compliant, the abuser might take the next step. Abusers often entice good kids to do something bad, a threat he can hold over the child, should the child want to tell an adult. He will also use threats, saying, "No one will believe you if you tell." That was the testimony from several of Sandusky's victims.
How should I talk about touching with my child?
Use the correct names for body parts. Be sure your child knows that it is wrong for anyone to touch their genitals or their bottom. Be clear about what touch means: horseplay, stroking a leg, an adult brushing up against a child's front or back. Be sure your child knows to come to you, a teacher, or a family friend if someone touches their private parts or makes them feel uncomfortable.
This book, My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky, is a good place to start. It's expressly written for preschoolers. If an adult you know makes you feel uneasy, trust your instincts. Make sure this person is never left alone with your child. Consider carefully the people your child is allowed to spend the night with, and those who babysit your child. If you have been abused yourself, get help. Above all, keep your child safe from the abuser.
What are some ways abusers control the children they use?
Abusers can only function when the child keeps their secret. When touching has occurred, the abuser will often tell the child, "This is special, just between you and I." He might also suggest the consequences of telling. "If you tell, I'll get in trouble and it will be all your fault." Or, "If you tell, it will break the family up." That can never be a deterent.
Tell your kids "Our family keeps no secrets." The only way abuse continues is when people keep silent.