The news about former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of young boys is sickening and scary. And sadly, it’s not uncommon. But instead of pulling the covers over our heads, we can use news like this as an opportunity to learn about the signs of abuse so we can prevent it from happening again. There are things we can do to keep our children safe. Keep reading for tips that can strengthen our kids, our families, and our communities against the threat of pedophiles.
Having “The Talk”
You don't have to scare your children in order to keep them safe. Teaching them the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching will go a long way in protecting them from predators. As early as age 3, children should understand that parts of their body are private and that it's not okay for just anyone to touch them. Here are some things to keep in mind as you start the conversation.
Start simple. There's no need to go into the mechanics of how babies are made; keep the birds and the bees conversation separate from the one about "okay" and "not okay" touching. After all, pedophilia is not about sex as much as it's about abuse. Ease into it by explaining how certain parts of their body, those covered by a swimsuit, are private. No one should touch them there except for Mommy and Daddy (or primary caregiver) when they're being cleaned—and the doctor, too, but only if Mom or Dad is there in the room. Don’t go into a whole "some people are bad and do things that hurt kids" explanation; just focus on appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
Use real names for body parts. Avoid calling your child’s private parts by cutesy, made-up names. “It makes kids think that there is something weird or shameful about their bodies, and they’ll be less likely to tell you if someone touches them,” says Sharon W. Doty, author of Keeping Them Safe: Protecting Children from Sexual Predators and Evil in Our Midst: Protecting Children from Sexual Predators. Use “penis,” “testicles,” “vulva,” “vagina,” and “breasts” instead.
Think beyond “stranger danger.” Instructing your child to never talk to strangers is good advice. But the truth is, 80 to 90 percent of abuse is committed not by strangers but by someone the child knows well—and possibly loves. “Abduction is a lesser concern,” says Char Rivette, executive director of the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center. “You have to worry more about who your child spends time with on daily basis.”
Don’t keep secrets. Sex abusers almost always manipulate the children they molest through secrets. They’ll tell kids, “This is our secret. You can’t tell your mom because she’ll be very mad at you.” Remind your child frequently that no adult should ever ask her to keep secrets. And that includes you. “If you keep a secret with your child, it confuses the message that it’s not okay for other grown-ups to do,” says Rivette.
Believe your child. Establish a relationship of faith and trust with your kids. If you’re constantly questioning what they say, they may be more reluctant to tell you if something has happened to them. When you’re talking about inappropriate touching, let them know—explicitly—that you will believe them and that you will never be mad.