Steps Adults Can Take to Keep Children Safe from Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse can be prevented, and parents and caregivers are at the fore-front-in keeping children safe.
Here are some ways that as a parent or caregiver, you can keep your child safe from sexual abuse.
Knowing the warning signs of sexual abuse
Warning signs vary by age, and include a range of emotional, behavioural, and physical signs. Many children show no signs at all.
Drastic changes in behaviour and aggressive or sexualised behaviours emerging can be a cause for concern as they may be indicators that a child has been or is being abused. If you are at all concerned, take action and start by making an appointment with your child’s doctor or speak to a professional who can help.
Sexual abuse can occur at any time, and most times the abuser is known to the child.
The abuser can be male, female, child, youth or adult and is probably already known, liked, and even loved by your child. There is no ‘typical’ child abuser – it could be anyone! In New Zealand 90% of reported sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child.
Click here for more information about sexual abuse.
Know what can make your child vulnerable to sexual abuse
Your child is vulnerable to abuse when they are alone with others. Teach your child what to do if they become separated from you, or the adult in charge.
Encourage your child or teenager to travel with a friend so they’re not isolated. Teach your child to ask for your permission before making plans, and to keep you informed of changes to plans.
Know how to report suspected sexual abuse
The Police and Oranga Tamariki are the government agencies that handle allegations of abuse. Their contact phone numbers are listed in the front section of the telephone directory. For more information about reporting, click here.
Know how to respond appropriately if your child discloses abuse
Remain calm, believe your child, and reassure them it is not their fault. Children rarely make up stories about sexual abuse. Ask your child questions in a calm manner and listen carefully to their responses to understand what has happened.
Tell your child you are sorry this has happened to them, that you love them, and praise them for telling you. Allow your child to express their feelings and tell them what will happen next e.g. contacting the authorities to report what has happened.
Be confident in your ability to handle anything your child tells you
Remember, you are the adult. You don’t need to have all the answers right now, and it’s OK for your child to know that. You will be able to find the resources you need to help you help your child.
Trust your instincts about the safety of your child
Listen and trust your instincts because these are your own internal warning signals, and they are usually right! Where your child is concerned, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Seek help if you see sexual touching happening with your child
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and act.
Recognise the difference between your child's natural curiosity and sexually harmful behaviours
It is normal for children to be curious about sex, to engage in sexual play and to explore their own or other children’s bodies. If you become are of your child engaging in sexualised behaviour remain calm and respond appropriately.
The way to tell the difference between normal sexual play and problematic behaviour is that normal sexual play is usually with a similar age child and viewed by both as fun or interesting. The children will respond to limit setting.
If the behaviour is problematic one child may be significantly older, bigger, and more knowledgeable than the other, and the behaviour may cause distress or other harm. There may be secrecy, or even force, and the behaviour may continue after limits have been set.
Respond to inappropriate sexual behaviours by an adolescent or young person
Talk openly and honestly with the young person. Let them know you care and are concerned, and that you want to help.
Be clear what it is you are concerned about and listen carefully to what the young person says and how they respond.
Don’t allow your concerns to be brushed off, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help from WellStop or other specialist agencies.
Don't punish your child for acting to keep themselves safe
Praise your child for their actions to keep themselves safe. Explain in an age-appropriate way why they did the right thing, and how proud of them you are.
Keep the lines of communication open
Take time to talk with your child and listen to what they say. Ask them questions and answer them in ways that are appropriate to their stage of development.
Respond openly and honestly in a straight forward way and check that they understand.
Don’t be afraid to tell your child if you feel uncomfortable talking about particular topics – role-modelling openness even when the topic is difficult to talk about is a great lesson to teach your child. This will make it easier for them to come to you if something doesn’t feel right to them.
Don't punish your child for telling the truth about breaking a rule
Praise your child for telling the truth about making a mistake in breaking a rule because this teaches them they can come and talk with you openly and seek your help and support. You can still teach your child how to be accountable for their actions, while also teaching them the importance of being open and truthful.
Use teachable moments as they arise
Be an ‘askable’ parent by responding positively to your child’s questions. Listening, and responding to all their questions, provides a great opportunity for your child to learn in a spontaneous, and natural way.
Allow your child privacy
Everyone has a right to privacy so teach your child to give and expect privacy by providing them with privacy. Talk about and agree to rules for behaviour with regard to privacy e.g. “in our family we knock on a closed door before entering a room.”
Talk about body parts with your child early and teach them that some body parts are private
Use proper names for body parts and teach your child which body parts are private and not for everyone to see. Explain who can see them naked and who should only see them with their clothes on.
Explain that their doctor can see them without their clothes on because you are there with them and the doctor is checking their body.
Teach your child about 'body boundaries'
Teach your child in a “matter-of-fact” way that no one should touch their private parts or ask them to touch another person’s private parts.
Let your child choose how they greet or farewell other people
Don’t force your child to hug or kiss other people. Supporting your child’s right to decide when and how they show their affection towards others teaches them useful lessons about boundaries and that there are different ways of showing love and respect for others.
Teach your child that they don't have to comply with requests or demands from authority figures that feel unsafe to them
Teach your child that regardless of who it is, they have permission to say “no” if they feel unsafe, or uncomfortable about what they are being asked to do regardless of who it is that is asking them.
Tell your child how to get out of scary or uncomfortable situations
Some children are uncomfortable with telling people “no”- especially older peers and adults. Tell them it’s okay to tell an adult they have to leave if something feels wrong and help give them words to get out of uncomfortable situations.
Create scenarios so your child can think through and role-play how they could respond in a variety of different situations.
Talking through possible responses will help your child be prepared and better able to keep safe and develop their problem-solving skills.
Don't keep secrets
Teach your child that “in our family we don’t keep secrets” by role modelling honest and open behaviour yourself i.e. don’t ask your child to keep ‘harmless’ secrets because they may not be able to differentiate harmful from harmless secrets.
Tell your child that no matter what anyone tells them, secrets are not okay, and they should always tell you if someone tries to make them keep a secret.
Talk to your child about safety in public places, E.G. using public toilets
Take younger children in with you when using a public toilet and accompany your older child. Stand close by the door so that your child is reassured they are safe, and others know your child is accompanied by an adult.
Carefully screen caregivers and babysitters
Check the policies, procedures of the day-care centre, school, and other activities your child attends.
Meet, and take your time screening and getting to know potential babysitters before you leave your child with them. Ask for and check their references.
Regularly check with your child about their experiences with these other people.
Let caregivers, babysitters and other authority figures know you have taught your child how to keep safe
Let the people who spend time with your child know that you have taught your child body-safety rules, that it’s OK for them to say “no” if they don’t feel safe, and that your child knows not to keep secrets from you.
Check in with your child when they are staying at other people's homes
Phone your child to see how things are going, and to check they are still OK about staying there. Let your child know they can call you anytime if they want to be picked up to come home. Alternatively, host the sleepover at your house.
Be suspicious of adults who want to spend time alone with your child
Of course, your child will spend time with adult friends, teachers and coaches. But beware of those who make an effort to be alone with your child, who shower your child with gifts or who speak of having a “special relationship” with your child.
Monitor your child's computer use, and install software to help protect your child
Keep the computer in the room of the house where most family activity occurs. Let children know you have passwords on their devices.
Install appropriate software to minimise your child’s accidental exposure to violence and pornography.
If your child does inadvertently access objectionable material, use this as a “teachable moment” to talk with your child about your family’s values and morals.
Talk to your child about the risks of communicating with strangers online and the importance of not giving strangers revealing identifying information about themselves.
Reference: Wurtele, S., & Berkower, F. (2010). Off limits: A parent’s guide to keeping kids safe from sexual abuse. Brandon, VT: The Safer Society Press. This book is an excellent resource and can be purchased on Amazon. The author also runs an informative Facebook page.