In these times of #metoo and #timesup, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk to ETM’s regular contributor and licensed family therapist, Vinay Gaglani, about what we can do, as parents and caregivers, to protect our children from sexual predators. It is an unfortunate but necessary and vitally important topic of conversation. I hope that you can glean some information from our interview that helps keep your children safe.
A: Thank you Vinay, for taking the time to talk to us about this topic. My first question to you is this: how do we broach the topic of sexual predators and sexual abuse with our children? Especially with the little ones and grade schoolers?
V: Is there any topic more uncomfortable to contemplate than child sexual abuse? How do we protect our children without scaring them? Given the startling prevalence of childhood sexual abuse (one in five girls and one in twenty boys is a victim of childhood sexual abuse*), how do we keep our children from #metoo? As we explore this topic, it is essential to keep in mind that our children are not responsible for their own safety, especially against adults.
While we can teach them to say no to those adults who might choose to do them harm, understanding that it is very possible that our children may not feel able to do so, or may not be heard even if they do. This helps us keep our expectations realistic, and even more critically, keeps the focus of the job protecting our children on us, the parents, grandparents and other trustworthy adults in our children’s lives.
What makes things even trickier is almost 90% of sexual abuse perpetrators are known to the victim, making it even more clear that teaching body safety to children is only one small part of the bigger topic of protection.
With our younger children, preschool to kindergarten age, we can begin the process of teaching body safety by teaching the names of the private body parts in the same matter of fact way we teach “elbow” and “nose.” By designating those parts of the body as private parts we can assign different rules for them, such as that they can only be touched for the purpose of cleaning by parents and caregivers, and for the purpose of making sure they are healthy, by doctors.
Along with learning about all their body parts, our children benefit from learning the difference between safe and unsafe touches. Any aggressive touches are naturally seen as unsafe. However, any touches to the private parts by someone who isn’t a parent, caregiver or doctor, for the purpose of cleaning and keeping healthy, can also be labeled as an unsafe touch, including unwanted hugs. Of course this can only be effective if we recognize our children’s sovereignty over their own bodies and to do not force them to hug us or anyone else. In doing so we allow children to better distinguish the touches that, while not inherently aggressive, feel uncomfortable, and give them an “uh-oh” feeling in their tummies.
The next step is teaching children the differences between safe and unsafe secrets. One such example is they know about a surprise party for grandpa and need to keep it secret until the party. That would be a safe secret. The squeeze their older cousin gave them that made them uncomfortable would be an unsafe secret to keep. Building this vocabulary into our daily language with our children helps it become a natural part of the conversation around safety, much like avoiding play with matches, and looking both ways when crossing the street. Having worked in the treatment of sexual violence for many years, I began teaching my sons these body safety rules when they were three. Now that they are ten and five years old, we review the body safety rules before playdates, and sleepovers, just like we review street crossing rules when they are playing with their friends in the neighborhood.
A: And what about talking about sexual abuse with middle schoolers and teens, I believe in being extremely direct and not sugar-coat the topic with the older kids, do you agree?
V: With older children, middle school age and up, I think the conversation about body safety needs to incorporate dating violence to be fully comprehensive (check out the Teen Dating Bill of Rights).
Being blunt about the presence of child sexual abuse as a societal problem, much like drug abuse and drunk driving, gives the conversation about self-protection some context without being overly alarming.
A: When my daughter was in her Pre-K year, I attended a workshop regarding how to safeguard our children from sexual predators. I was appalled to learn that most children who are sexually abused are abused by someone they know, someone who is usually close to the family. This got my head spinning, because, how do you protect your children against someone you already trust enough to allow them near your family?
V: Yes, one of the most startling statistics around which to wrap our minds as parents, is, “…Only 14% of children who suffered sexual abuse were violated by an unknown perpetrator.”** This means that sexual victimization of children occurs by immediate and extended family members, family friends, and others in position of authority, far more often that someone they have never met. As entirely uncomfortable as this thought is, there are a few important steps we can take to safeguard our children to the best of our abilities:
- We can begin by acknowledging our own discomfort around the topic of child sexual abuse, especially if we ourselves have experienced abuse in our past. Doing so allows us to be appropriately responsive to the issue without being overly reactive and needlessly suspicious, or, at the other extreme, feeling numb and disengaged as a result of our own past trauma. This exploration can happen with a close friend or loved one, a therapist, or in a support group.
- We can establish some healthy guidelines around physical touch with our own children from the very beginning. This means letting the child decide whom to hug and kiss, and respecting their desire for distance, even if it is unpopular with our family members. Helping family members understand the rationale for doing so can give them an opportunity to support your child in staying safe, rather than taking it personally.
- Giving our children the words to express physical and emotional discomfort as different from physical pain can help them convey when they feel uncomfortable or uneasy. We can talk about our own experiences of being nervous, using sensory language such as having butterflies or knots in our tummies, to give our children context for when they might feel that way as compared to a stomach ache or the pain experienced when scraping your knee.
- Teaching our children about the safe touch and safe secret rules, as I mentioned earlier, and emphasizing that these rules apply to absolutely everyone, whether they know them or not. Again, it is important to help them understand the rules, especially before an uncle or aunt who is babysitting might need to change a diaper or help the child clean himself after using the toilet, or take a bath before bed. The rules should also be made clear to the caregiver who is watching your child. For example, you can tell your babysitter that you do not wish that they give your kids a bath, they can “stay stinky” as a special treat!
- Listening to a child who says they don’t want to spend time with someone they know, especially if they typically do, is one of the most important things we can do as parents. We can offer to accompany them if they would like that, or we can advocate for them to not spend time with that person. There may be a perfectly benign reason for this, that can be discovered through exploration and play with your child, but I truly believe it is far better to respect this unusual/atypical reticence than not.
It goes without saying that we need to be very cautious about whom we allow around our children, especially when we are not present. Any kind of red flags, such as a cousin who just doesn’t take no for an answer, or a relative who likes to wrestle or roughhouse even when asked not to, or the neighbor who just gives you a mildly “off” vibe would be people to avoid in a caregiving role for your children.
In the last few years, media attention that has focused on clergy and sports coaches following various heartbreaking scandals has made us increasingly aware of how important it is to vet who will be in positions of authority over our children. Asking for references for those in positions of authority, exploring their willingness and openness to having parent involvement, observing their interactions with your children and with the children of others, are just a few possibilities to begin a wider and deeper discussion of this issue.
A: At this same sexual abuse prevention workshop, I was equally surprised to hear a lot of the “prevention strategies” many of the parents in attendance taught their children still placed the responsibility on the child to tell an adult if something “untoward” had happened to them. Can you tell me some strategies that professionals in the field recommend in order to help children not carry the burden of responsibility for “saying something?”
V: This is a challenging question and I really am not sure if there is one clear answer. With the strong belief that children are not responsible for their own protection, I have wrestled with the question of how to allow my children to experience the joys of activities such as play dates and sleepovers and sleep-away camp. These activities happen with greater frequency as children get older and separate more from their parents. There is definitely a truth to contend with: if I want my child to experience these very developmentally appropriate, and usually entirely safe activities where I cannot, by definition, be present, then I must rely on my child to tell me if something negative has happened to them, in order to protect them. However, even one occurrence of an inappropriate incident is one too many for my child to have to endure. So to try and navigate this very complex issue, here are some thoughts:
- I believe that the quality of my bond with my child will go far in determining the ease with which they share any and all stories with me. Practicing a calm and even toned approach to anything my child might share with me, about himself and his friends, can encourage him to share the more challenging things, like people who might make him uncomfortable due to their interactions with others; this can deepen the trust needed for him to tell me if someone makes him uncomfortable due to interactions with him.
- When we started out with playdates, I was present at my child’s friend’s home for the duration, and I would invite the parent to come to our home too. After many of these, I would allow for short playdates in my absence, and ask open-ended questions, and use play and role play afterwards to explore how the experience was for my child. Further, before beginning sleepovers, we can spend time with the families of our children’s friends, invite them over for dinner, spend time in their homes and get a feel for their dynamics. This can help create a culture of awareness and involvement that may well serve to deter any untoward action.
- If our child feels uncomfortable going to a friend’s home, or somewhere else where we wouldn’t be present for the duration, even if it had already been scheduled, I’d suggest exploring the reason for my son’s change of heart.
- As parents we can make our child’s environment safe to the extent that we are present with them, and we can arm them with knowledge to be able to stand up for themselves, not just in this arena but in a range of situations. We can also alleviate the burden on our children of saying something when in reality that might be almost impossible to do, by telling them to try and say no, and try and tell us if something happens.
Sadly, a point of guilt for many young survivors with whom I’ve worked, is that they weren’t able to stop the offender from abusing them, or weren’t able to tell their parent. Compassion around this awareness can help give our children the best possible chance to tell us of their experiences, but also knowing they won’t be in trouble if they simply cannot. Understanding the dynamics of “grooming” can help put the difficulty of disclosure into perspective.***
An excellent book about child protection that I highly recommend, is Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) by Gavin de Becker.
A: Despite our best efforts, what should we do if something happens to our children?
V: Should the unthinkable happen, and our child discloses sexual abuse of any kind to us, the way we react as the ‘outcry witness,’ the very first person to whom a child discloses their abuse, will set the tone for how healing begins. Our imperative is to listen, believe, try to stay calm, and stop all contact with the alleged offender. Further, in our role as the outcry witness, we are “obligated to report the abuse to the proper authorities.” This can be the police or the local Child Protective Services hotline.
Staying calm in such a circumstance seems like a very tall order, of course. However, this is not to say we have to exhibit a stoic calmness of someone being informed of something bland or minor. We can certainly have emotions but be very clear to our child that we are upset that they were harmed by someone, and that we are absolutely not upset with them. Emphasizing that what happened to them was not their fault and that we are relieved they told us, so that we can keep them from being harmed again, is a positive, empowering message to give.
Believing our child is absolutely critical: the embarrassment that might be caused by believing a child was abused, and having it be a misunderstanding, is very minor compared to the damage done to a child’s sense of self-esteem, safety and worthiness, who isn’t believed and thus isn’t protected from further harm once they disclose.
Being aware of a change in behavior, mood and relationships in our children can also alert us that something is amiss. Some symptoms that a child who is being sexually abused might show, include:
- clinginess/fear of being alone
- bedwetting/soiling in a child who is toilet trained
- outbursts of anger/aggression that are unusual for the child’s temperament, age and developmental level
- knowledge of words for the private organs that are different to what you have taught them, especially if too young to engage in these conversations with peers
- acting out in a sexualized manner with toys, or with other children, touching themselves almost obsessively
- becoming very upset around certain adults they’ve usually had good/neutral relationships with-falling grades, school refusal
- depressed mood, increased anxiety, self harming
- use of alcohol, drugs, sneaking out, other high risk behaviors
While any one of these alone is not typically an indicator of sexual abuse, the sudden onset of a cluster of these definitely warrants further investigation.
Whether it is a direct disclosure that is made, or the observation of some of these symptoms, seeking mental health support with professionals specifically trained in sexual abuse treatment can help begin the healing process on a healthy note. If the child or adolescent refuses to go and see a therapist, we as parents can set up an appointment and work with a therapist ourselves to process our own feelings as well as learn ways to connect with our children around the issue such that they feel safe, supported and able to talk to us.
Having worked with child and teen survivors of sexual abuse since 2000, I do know that healing is absolutely possible, and long-term trauma is absolutely not an inevitable consequence of experiencing sexual abuse. As parents we have indubitable power to offer compassion, empathy and empowerment to our child, helping them and ourselves navigate the pathways of healing, and emerging as fully healed individuals and families with potential to thrive.
A: Once again Vinay, thank you for your wisdom on a very tough topic.
* Child Sexual Abuse Statistics, based on studies by David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, as quoted on victimsofcrime.org
**Statistics on Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse, www.victimsofcrime.org
***Dynamics of “Grooming” by Sexual Predators, as quoted on victimsofcrime.org
Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and tea!