Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Protecting Kids from Sexual Abuse

My second-grader told me that one of her classmates has a problem. In her words, “Her dad is in jail because he touched her privates.”

After swallowing back the bile this horrific thought created, I knew that I had to act on this opportunity to explain to my two daughters so that they could be safe. I looked at my husband and knew he was thinking the same thing. I asked my daughters if they understood what “privates” meant and we talked a little bit about how our bodies are special. I told them Heavenly Father does not want them to show other people these areas or allow others to touch them.

I could see their little minds working as I explained to them that it’s okay for them to take a bath and for Mom and Dad to help them, but it is never okay for a person to make them feel sad, scared, or uncomfortable by touching them. I know that many people say we should use the specific terms for their bodies, but I will refer to these areas as “privates” in this article because that is what I feel comfortable talking about with my young children. I figure it’s better to talk about the subject then avoid it completely because we’re afraid of what terminology we’re supposed to use.

There is a fine line when explaining these things and I could feel it pulling back and forth. I don’t want my girls to be so worried about these things that they are constantly on their mind. I want them to be educated and understand about emotions and how a sexual predator might play on those emotions. I want them to feel confident that they know how special their bodies are and the steps we should take to protect them.

When explaining, I used a lot of these “emotion” words to help them understand that even if it is a person they know well or one of their relatives, if they feel uncomfortable about anything they can come to Mom and Dad and tell us. I explained to my seven and five-year-old what it means to feel uncomfortable—like you are worried, sad, scared, have a funny feeling in your stomach, etc. I kept an open dialogue and let them fill in the blanks so that I was sure they understood what we were talking about.

There are hundreds of ways to approach this topic and I honestly don’t know what the best way is, but I do know it must be discussed. For us, having an open dialogue with the kids where they were able to take time to digest what I was telling them and then ask questions seemed to work. My husband and I had this discussion around the dinner table and we tried to let the girls fill in the blanks by asking them questions and then listening carefully to their responses and follow-up questions.

Walk the line carefully between not giving enough information vs. giving your child nightmares about what could happen. Don’t skirt the biggest issue in sexual abuse—that is that most children are sexually abused by someone they know. It’s horrible, but it is a fact. You must take the initiative and explain to your child that sometimes people we know may do bad things. Start by giving an example that is a little less threatening, but still something that occurs often. “If a friend or cousin wants to see your privates, do you let them?” and “What should you do in this situation?” and “What if they tell you that you have to or they will hurt you, take your toys, etc?”

Most parents cringe when they hear a report about a child suffering from sexual abuse. That’s an appropriate response, just don’t miss the opportunity to talk to your kids and educate them so that they will be protected from sexual predators.

Having a dedicated Family Home Evening on this topic with a lesson about how we were created in God’s image and how special our bodies are is a good start. First, help children realize the sacredness of their bodies. Then, teach them about how sometimes people do bad things and how it might affect them. Finally, create a plan of what your child could do in a harmful situation. Role-play, ask detailed questions, tell a story, anything to get the information across so that your child will know how to react if they are ever approached by a sexual predator.

We teach our kids from a very young age what to do before they cross the street and what to do if a stranger offers them candy. If you ask most kids these questions, they will blurt out an answer with a confident smile. Our kids should offer the same confident responses when asked what to do if a person tries to sexually abuse them. Knowledge is power and it cannot be gained by one exposure to information. Think about how many times you have talked to your kids about strangers or crossing the street. The topic of sexual abuse needs to be approached just as often so that a solution to the problem becomes ingrained in their mind just like they know to run if a stranger ever tries to offer them a ride in their car.

Each child is different. Be aware of the barometer of your child’s emotions and the fine line you need to walk in approaching this subject so that your child will recognize the danger of sexual abuse but still feel confident that they know how to protect themselves.
And NEVER put your child in a situation with someone you do not trust, no matter if this is a family member or your oldest friend. Listen to the Spirit, protect your child by always taking the first step and not placing them in a compromising situation.

The conversations that can spiral off this topic are very useful. In teaching your kids that it is ALWAYS okay for them to tell you anything, you are paving the way for them to talk to you about other difficult things.

My daughter is only seven and I am learning every day how dangerous this world can be. I don’t want her to have that huge worry about all the evil in the world—I want her to see the beauty of the world. The best way to make this happen is to equip her with tools to protect herself and pray for inspiration that we can continue to teach her and keep her safe.

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