Straight Talk to Parents About Protecting Children From Sexual Abuse

Jul 17th, 2011 | By | Category: All Posts, Articles

by Christina Enevoldsen

I come from a long line of parents who didn’t protect their children from sexual abuse. My maternal and paternal grandparents failed to guard my parents; my parents didn’t protect me (my father was my primary sexual abuser); then I failed to protect my children.

I’ve written about some of my own issues that made my daughter vulnerable to sexual abuse from her father in “Confessions of a Child Molester’s Wife”. I’ve received a lot of criticism about that, but the reason I’m open about my past, and especially my failures, is that I hope others learn from my gross mistakes.

When people talk about preventing abuse, most of the focus is on awareness. Even if the whole world was aware, abuse would still continue. I was aware of sexual abuse since I endured it for years, but that didn’t prevent my daughter from being abused right under my nose.

There are more and more programs and books aimed at protecting children from abuse that are directed at children. They are very important since so much abuse comes from within the child’s own home and many times it’s the parents who enable the abuse or perpetrate the abuse.

But there is only so much an outside program can do. The two things a child is taught to do require using her voice to either say “no” or to tell someone, but how much of a voice does a child really have? Usually, only as much as her parents allow. The most effective protectors are the parents.

Talking to your child about abusive situations is part of protecting him, but having a “prevention talk” is only part of the solution. It’s more effective if you talk about these issues on a regular basis and provide a lifestyle of open communication and healthy support. Words are important, but be aware of non-verbal messages you may be sending. It’s how you treat your child, how you treat yourself and the behavior you model that will impact him the most.

With your words:
Teach your child awareness of dangerous activities and the lures used to entice children. For the most part, a child is seduced in the same way one adult seduces another. The offender takes him places, buys him things, impresses the child, and makes the child feel loved. For more information on grooming behavior, visit Child Sexual Abuse: Six Stages of Grooming.

With your actions:
Is your child vulnerable to grooming tactics? A child’s need for love is stronger than his need to avoid danger. In an effort to satisfy his healthy need for affection and attention, he may look for it in unsafe sources. Does your child know he is special to you? Would you be willing to bet his safety and well-being on that?

Would YOU be vulnerable to an abuser’s grooming tactics? Do you have healthy relationships or do you seem to attract abusive people? The abuser’s main objective is to avoid being caught and therefore wants to make sure that he has the trust of the whole family, especially the parents.

“We must learn and then teach our children that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait. People seeking to control others almost always present an image of a nice person in the beginning. Like rapport building, charm, and the deceptive smile, unsolicited niceness often has a discoverable motive.” The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker

With your words:
Teach your child that her body belongs to her and she can say “no” to touch or situations that don’t feel safe. A confusing message often given to a child is that abuse includes the touching of the “part of the body covered by a bathing suit”. In fact, abuse includes any touch with which a child is uncomfortable. It also includes being flashed in the park, having to take part in nude photographs, having to watch someone else perform a sexual activity, none of which may involve touching at all.

Children think in black and white and see people as either all good or all bad. It is hard for them to understand that the grandpa who brings them toys can also do bad things. Instead of teaching your child about recognizing bad people, teach her to recognize bad situations and behaviors.

With your actions:
Do you tell your child to say “no” to unwelcome touch, but tease her with tousles to her hair that you know she doesn’t like? Or “playful” swats to her butt? Do you let your spouse or any other person touch her in ways that don’t seem “abusive” but aren’t pleasant touches? Unwanted touch that is forcibly endured reinforces the belief that her body is not her own and others have power over it.

Is your child empowered to do anything about it if she does recognize a bad situation? Are you willing to back up your child’s “no”? If your daughter told you she didn’t want to give Grandpa a hug, would you force her to do it anyway? Do you think a child’s feelings are less important than an adult’s feelings? Are you more afraid of Grandpa’s hurt feelings than your child’s? Teaching your child to be aware is only effective if she is also empowered to do something about it. It’s crazy-making to tell a child how to recognize danger, but to force her to endure it anyway.

Are YOU able to say no? Do you model good boundaries with your body, possessions and time? Are you comfortable standing up for yourself and for your child?

With your words:
Ensure that your child knows how to recognize an unsafe situation before, during or after the event itself. This is done with his head but more reliably; his body lets him know. Everyone has body signs that tell them when they are uncomfortable, unsafe or scared – racing heart, nausea, dizziness, sweating, etc. If a child knows to pay attention to his body signs, he may be able to recognize a variety of unsafe situations including abuse.

With your actions:
What is your attitude about your child’s feelings? Do you pay attention to signals? Do you only look for signs of abuse and everything else is “no big deal” and your child should just “toughen up”? If his nervousness over starting a new school or taking a big test isn’t validated by you, you communicate that his feelings don’t matter. If you aren’t trustworthy with the little things, what makes you think you’re trustworthy with the bigger things? If you discount his emotions, how do you expect your child to value his own emotions?

Do you listen to what your child isn’t saying? Sometimes a child can’t articulate how he is feeling, but he acts out. It’s common for a parent to assume that the child is the problem instead of asking if there is something more sinister that the child may be reacting to. One way a child “tells” is through their bad behavior. Many children who are abused are discounted because “they always lie” or “they’re just drawn to trouble”. But why do they misbehave? What are they angry about? Why do they ask for negative attention? Since children have black and white thinking, they think their bad behavior equals a bad child. Do you support that belief? If their negative behavior is rooted in abuse, that belief only adds to the shame of the abuse.

With your words:
Tell your child that they can tell you about anything bad that happens to him no matter who it is. A high percentage of sexual abuse is committed by coaches, teachers, clergy, parents and other authority figures. Children are more vulnerable with these people since they are taught to listen to these adults.

With your actions:
Do you give your child permission to tell you what they really think about people, even those in authority? What if your son said something that wasn’t very nice about your best friend? Your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend? Your pastor? Would you be more afraid of your child being “disrespectful” than you would of his possible mistreatment?

Do you have a family culture that allows for reporting misbehavior in all others? Or do you reprimand your child for “tattling”?

Do you question authority? Authority structures are in place to ensure the well-being of those under their authority. Do you question the instructions/policies/doctrines to see if they are for your well-being and for your child’s? If you blindly follow, your child has no protection from authority figures or abusive systems.

With your words:
Abuse thrives in secrecy. Teach your child when to keep a secret and when to tell. If a child is too young to know the difference, he is too young to carry the burden of a secret and should be taught to tell. Secrets that make you feel bad, scared or confused should not be kept.

With your actions:
Does your family have a culture of openness? Is there a spoken or unspoken rule that “we don’t air our dirty laundry in public”? Are you ashamed of something in your household that you expect your child to keep quiet about?

With your words:
Children need to know that if someone abuses them, it was not their fault. Even if they didn’t say “no” or run away, they are not to blame.

With your actions:
When another child hits him or takes his toy, do you respond with, “Why did you let them do that to you?” That places the blame on your child and tells him that he is responsible for what others do to him.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Reduce or eliminate situations where your child is alone with an adult. This will significantly reduce to likelihood of your child being sexually abused. Be aware of anyone who pays an unusual amount of attention to your children.
  • Know who your child is playing with and what they are doing. Not all abusers are adults. Many cases of sexual abuse are perpetrated by another child.
  • Act on suspicions, even if you suspect someone close to you may be the abuser.  It is better to keep a child safe than to risk hurting someone’s feelings or ending a relationship.
  • Prepare yourself. Know how to respond if your child discloses abuse to you. Know who to call and how to help your child recover.
  • If you’ve been abused (sexually or in any other way), start the journey of recovery.  If you haven’t faced your own abuse, you are more likely to either be overprotective or to miss the signs of abuse and fail to stop abuse that you do see. Overprotection is a form of abuse/neglect since it fails to empower the child with confidence to function independently.  Many survivors of abuse make wonderful parents, but you can only be a healthy parent if you are a healthy person.

There is no list that can cover everything a parent can do to prevent their child from being abused.  Following lists won’t provide the most effective protection anyway; the most effective protection is to parent as a healthy, whole person and to provide a loving, secure, supportive family system. I haven’t met many survivors of childhood sexual abuse—if any at all— who had parents who treated them as valuable, who modeled healthy behavior and provided a functional home. Even if the sexual abuser wasn’t a family member, the family is the first “grooming” a child experiences.

My own dysfunction and the home I created out of that dysfunction primed my daughter to be sexually abused.  I can’t change what happened, but as I heal from my own abuse, our family dynamics change.  As I’ve learned to stand up to abuse, so has she.  Even though my children are adults now, the healthy changes I’ve made and the benefits of them spill into their lives.  Nothing can change the past, but the future of my family is changed.

I wish I had learned these things before I became a mother.  I wish my parents had read something like this before I was born.  It’s too late for those wishes to come true, but I hope that other children will be spared the things the children in my family lived through.

Related Links: Confessions of a Child Molester’s Wife
Power Play: How to Recognize an Abuser
Power Trip: How to Journey From Overpowered to Empowered
The Wolf in Shepherd’s Clothing: The “Benevolent” Abuser
How to Handle Disclosure of Sexual Abuse From a Child
Incest: Protect Your Children

Christina Enevoldsen is cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Christina’s passions are writing and speaking about her own journey of healing from abuse and inspiring people toward wholeness. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and share three children and four grandchildren.

[read Christina’s story here]

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