Being actively involved in a child’s life can make warning signs of child sexual abuse more obvious and help the child feel more comfortable coming to you if something isn’t right. If you see or hear something that causes concern, you can take action to protect your child.
These five questions, in various forms, have been used by many who work in the field of sexual assault prevention education. Think through them often to see how you are doing in this area of parenting your children:
- Do you show interest in your child’s day-to-day life?
Some children blurt out everything that happened during the day as soon as they get off the bus. Others are more private; when you ask them if they had a good day, they respond with one or two words and no details. Don’t give up on them. Ask open-ended questions. Tell them about your day: what made you happy, who made you angry, how you felt about certain situations. The child will then feel more encouraged to tell you more details about his or her day. Ask them what they did during the day and who they did it with—who they sat with at lunchtime, what games they played after school if they enjoyed themselves. It’s okay if your children share things that might seem petty. Your goal is to encourage them to share anything and everything. When we listen to what is trivial, they learn to trust us with more serious things.
A teacher asked her class to write a paper answering the question, “What would you like to be if you were not a human?” One child wrote, “If I were not a human, I would like to be a TV because as soon as everyone returns home, the TV is on. The whole family sits around watching the TV, and if someone tries to interrupt, everyone else shushes him so they can hear the program they are watching. I wish I were a TV so I could get my father’s full attention and he would spend as much time with me as he spends watching TV.” When the teacher returned home with the class papers to grade them, she showed this one to her husband.
“How silly,” the husband said. “This boy doesn’t want to be an astronaut, a doctor, or a performer? He just wants to be a TV?”
His wife looked at him somberly. “This is your son’s paper,” she said.
Showing interest in your child’s day-to-day life is spelled T-I-M-E. The more time you spend with your children, the more impact you will have on them as they grow up. When you invest in spending time with your children as they are growing up, you will have more impact on them when they are adolescents. You will even have more impact on them than their friends do.
- Do you know the people in your child’s life?
Make it your business to know the peers and adults your children spend time with. Ask your child about their fellow students, their friends’ parents, and anybody else they may encounter on a regular basis in extracurricular activities—teammates, coaches, members of organizations they are involved with. If you are comfortable talking openly about your children’s relationships and associations, they will be more likely to feel comfortable talking about them too.
- Do you Choose your children’s caregivers carefully?
Screen babysitters, staff members of new schools, leaders of extracurricular activities, and so on. And even after screening, never be too predictable with the caregiver about when you will be gone. Pop in during the middle of the day to see what is going on. Install cameras to see how the caregiver is treating your children.
An excellent book to read with your child is the Not Guilty book for boys and girls. Another good book is Some Secrets Should Never be Kept by Debra Byrne, or I Said NO by Zac and Kimberly King. Books like these should be read at least once a month with the child until the message sinks in.
Watch out for signs of distress. If your child suddenly decides he or she does not like the caregiver anymore, you need to ask why. If the child suddenly seems to be scared of the caregiver or too secretive about what they do together, see these as red flags. If you find gifts, toys, or cash with the child and can’t account for them, an adult may be grooming him or her for abuse.
Perpetrators will often use secret-keeping to manipulate children. Let children know they can always talk to you, especially if they have been told to keep a secret. If they see someone touching another child, they shouldn’t keep this secret either. One of the most beautiful things we need to learn is that there should be no secrets between children and their parents. Teach them that secrets are different from surprises. For example, if I don’t want to tell my mom what I will get her for her birthday, that’s called a surprise, not a secret. We need to eliminate the word secret from our dictionary so the offender does not use it to his or her advantage. Teach children that any secrets that make us feel afraid, ashamed, guilty, or uncomfortable should never be kept to oneself. Teach them that reporting something that is happening to another child is not being a snitch; it is keeping that other child safe and could even save that child’s life.
Teach your children that the word secret is a bad word when someone uses it against parents. If someone tells your child “Don’t tell your mother or father, this is our secret,” they need to tell you immediately. Don’t overreact. Your response dictates whether your children will continue to confide in you. But do take it seriously.
- Do you talk to your children about the media?Media outlets frequently portray incidents of sexual violence in both news and entertainment programs. Talk about these things with your children. Ask if they have ever heard of these things happening in their lives or among their friends. Ask how they would respond if they saw or heard about these things. Media can be a great prompt to begin a discussion, and your willingness to ask these questions signals to them that these are important issues.
5. Do you know the warning signs of abuse?
Familiarize yourself with the warning signs of child sexual abuse and be attentive to your child. Even small changes in behavior are worth exploring. Most will probably turn out to be normal—kids often test boundaries and try out new behaviors—but some sudden changes may prove to be significant. Your intervention could make a huge difference in your child’s or another person’s life.
“I dream that one day everyone will know what the words ‘me too’ signify,” said Aly Raisman at Larry Nassar’s trial, “but they will be educated and able to protect themselves from predators like Larry so that they will never, ever, ever have to say the words ‘me too.’” Awareness is a good start. Education and open communication are necessary next steps.
Protecting children from sexual abuse is a part of my work. I offer children counseling and training. I have created and taught many kids how to defend themselves. We provide awareness for parents and teachers. We love our children, and we need to send them the message that we love them. A wise man, Soliman, said long ago, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”[i]
Yes, this is us. We protect our children from sexual abuse.
 For these and other examples, see www. rainn.org.
[i] Proverbs 22:6, NKJV.
If you have questions, contact us.