Safeguarding kids from sexual abuseWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
The statistics are so appalling they almost defy comprehension: as many as 10 per cent of Canadian children are sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
As if that isn’t shocking enough, there’s yet more to reckon with: the majority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse never get caught. And very many parents don’t find out that their child has been abused until years after it happens.
Yes, it’s true – a significant proportion of parents remain unaware of an assault against their child. That’s largely because two-thirds of children who have been sexually abused stay quiet about the abuse. Typically kids don’t disclose that they’ve been sexually abused until they’ve reached young adulthood. And even then, they don’t confide in a parent; they’ll usually confide in a peer – a friend or a sibling.
Beth Robinson, a Texas-based Christian counsellor who works with sexually abused children, wants to nudge parents out of naivety and equip them to safeguard their children. In her newly released book Protecting Your Child From Predators, Robinson leads parents through case files that are all too common in her line of work, showing why, even with young children, parents can’t rely on their vigilance alone to keep their kids safe. Robinson warns that:
- it’s simply not possible to keep children in sight at all times
- sexual assault can happen very quickly
- perpetrators are often cunning, patient and methodical – adept at grooming not just their victim, but also grooming the victim’s parents to win their trust
- potential perpetrators are difficult for parents to identify.
Robinson has worked with many parents who were stunned to learn that their child was sexually violated by:
- someone the parents assumed too young to initiate sexual activity,
such as a similar-aged playmate their young child just met at the playground, or a close friend’s young son1
- someone who had contact with the child without the parents’ knowledge,
such as a babysitter’s boyfriend, or an uncle who was visiting during a sleepover at a friend’s house
- or someone the parents implicitly trusted,
such as a nephew, a music instructor or a youth group leader.
As well as giving a host of recommendations for parents and administrators to help keep kids safe – with babysitters and tutors, in public washrooms, in Sunday school programs, at Bible camp, on missions trips and more – Robinson also leads parents through talking points that help equip kids to protect themselves when parents are not around.
Protective measures for children ages five and under
Robinson recommends parents teach young children:
- a sense of wonder that God specially created their body for them
- that God very intentionally created people either male or female
- the correct anatomical name for both male and female body parts
- that their private parts – the body parts covered by a swimsuit – shouldn’t be touched or seen by others, and they should not touch or see anyone else’s private parts
- that Mom and Dad are the people who help them care for their body, and are the people to talk to about their body
- the difference between safe touch and unsafe touch – safe touches makes kids feel safe and calm; unsafe touches make kids feel nervous or scared, and usually involves private parts of the body
- that if they are ever touched in a way that feels unsafe, they should leave right away and tell Mom or Dad right away
- that if anyone asks them to do something or talk about something that makes them feel unsafe or confused, they should leave right away and tell Mom or Dad right away
- that if anyone asks them to keep a secret, they should tell Mom or Dad right away.
In teaching these safety skills, short and sweet discussions are best, to keep young kids’ attention. One conversation should build on another over time. “You should be able to communicate to your children in three to five sentences any important concepts,” Robinson suggests. “If your children want more information . . . they will ask questions.”
Don’t neglect practicing through role-playing, urges Robinson. Role-playing and equipping kids with phrases to say helps kids build the confidence and assertiveness they need to forcefully rebuff others who might harm them.
Keep in mind that perpetrators of sexual abuse will often test both a child and the child’s parents to determine whether the safety boundaries that are in place are weak or strong. And abusers will work to slowly erode personal boundaries too. So kids need to be taught to have a strong response even if someone appears to accidentally overstep personal boundaries, such as accidentally touching private parts while roughhousing, accidentally entering a bedroom when a child is changing, or barging into a bathroom when it’s already occupied.
“The core goal of all these conversations and strategies is to transfer from your heart to your child’s heart a fierce sense of protectiveness of his or her sexuality,” writes Robinson. “Sexuality is a gift from God. . . . This gift has tremendous value and tremendous risks that no child can possibly comprehend. But they can comprehend your love and passion for protecting them.”
Protective measures for children ages six to eleven
Building on topics covered in their younger years, Robinsons recommends ongoing conversations with school age children to teach them:
- how to recognize pornography and to come tell you whenever they come across it, and to tell you if someone shows them porn (a strategy abusers often use in grooming kids for abuse). Conversations warning about porn should start by six years of age at the latest.
- how to stay safe online, including never sharing personal or contact information, being sure to strip out GPS coordinates before posting photos online, etc.
- that a friend met online is not the same as a friend they know in person, and that they cannot trust an online “friend” in the same way
- that they should tell Mom or Dad whenever someone asks for a picture of them
- that they should tell Mom or Dad if someone they know makes jokes about sex or talks about sex with them; Mom or Dad are the appropriate people to answer their questions about sex and sexuality
- a secret code word that signals that a person picking them up unexpectedly really does have your authorization to do so
- a secret code word they can use when phoning you that means “I’m uncomfortable here. Please come pick me up right away.”
never to help a stranger who claims to be lost or looking for a lost pet, or who offers candy. Robinson recommends clearly teaching kids Adults should ask adults for help.
- to always ask permission before going somewhere so you know where they are, who they’re with and when to expect them home. Teach older kids to text you when they arrive somewhere, and when they leave to come home or go somewhere else.
Safeguarding kids in this age group against blackmail is important too. Tragically, kids who fervently desire to be “good” can be easily manipulated by abusers. Once the abuser has trapped them in initial wrongdoing – such as viewing pornography or sexual touching – the abuser can bully the child into more heinous acts by threatening to tell about the initial, lesser offense. Sexual predators will also often scare a child into silence by threatening to harm the parents if the child tells.
Teach your child – and show it too in the way you interact with your child every day – that you’ll be understanding if they voluntarily confess wrongdoing. Impress on them that it’s always best to confess a mistake, and even more so if someone is trying to use it against them. Reassure your child too that they never need to keep secrets to protect you; you’re confident you can keep yourself safe.
Protective measures for children 12 and older
Teens need to have a good understanding of personal safety. And although it’s challenging to teach, they also need to recognize how others might try to manipulate them, particularly once they start dating. Robinsons recommends ongoing conversations with teens to teach them:
- the dangers of sexting and sextortion
- how dressing and behaving immodestly can send messages they never intended
- how drugs and alcohol impair judgement
- how casual sex destroys intimacy
never to go anywhere with someone they just met – even to a parking lot just outside
- to always stay in a group of friends
never to drink a beverage they didn’t open and pour themselves, or a beverage they lost sight of
- to be suspicious of someone who singles them out for special attention, uses a lot of flattery, and tries to get them alone and out of sight of others – whether it’s someone they just met or someone they’ve known for some time
- to be suspicious of someone who inflates tensions between them and their parents or their friends and claims to be the only one who really understands them
- to always have a safety plan – someone who can be there quickly to pick them up in an emergency
- to recognize an abusive dating relationship.
Even once you reach a point where your son or daughter seems well equipped to protect themselves, don’t forget to remain vigilant yourself. Stay watchful for anyone initiating inappropriate interactions with your child.
Be on guard and wary, warns Robinson, of anyone who singles out your child for special attention or invents reasons to spend time alone with your child. Remember, they may flatter you with comments about your child’s special talents or qualities to gain your trust. Be suspicious, too, of age mismatches, such as kids or teens who love to hang out with children much younger than themselves.
Always remember that sexual abuse is profoundly confusing for a child or a teen, and their confusion hinders kids from speaking up. In many cases involving children or youth, the victim is manipulated into becoming strongly emotionally attached to their abuser and therefore feels very conflicted about revealing the abuse. For some victims, 10 years or more goes by before they have the maturity to understand that the relationship they had with their abuser really was abusive.
Other kids don’t tell because they’re unsure of the implications of disclosing the abuse. They believe their abuser’s threats about what will happen if they tell, or they fear a parent will be angry with them for the things they were manipulated into doing. Many kids believe they’re to blame – that they somehow caused the abuse.
Because of their fear and uncertainty, it’s rare for kids to blurt out a clear disclosure that they’re being abused says Robinson.
“When children are trying to disclose abuse, they often only imply that something has happened to them without directly stating that they were sexually abused. They may be testing the reaction of parents or adults by hinting at rather than stating what has happened. If children believe that a small hint has been accepted well, they may follow with a larger hint.”
If your child makes puzzling statements but refuses to elaborate, pay attention. Gently follow up on statements like I don't like the games Nicholas plays.
There may be other kinds of clues too. For example, if your child suddenly starts throwing a tantrum about visiting a place or a person they used to enjoy, or if they suddenly and inexplicably want to quit an activity they once loved, be sure to keep gently probing to find out why.
Should your child or a child in your care ever disclose an instance of sexual abuse, here’s what you need to do, right in that moment, to ensure the best outcome for the child:
- be sure to stay calm in the child’s presence to avoid further traumatizing the child
- immediately reassure the child that the abuse was not their fault, that they did the right thing to disclose it, that you will protect them from further harm, and that their involvement will be kept confidential as much as possible.
A disclosure of sexual abuse made by a minor must be reported to the police or a child welfare agency right away.
For more on this topic that’s especially relevant to Christian parents, there’s a lot more to be gained from Beth Robinson’s book Protecting Your Child From Predators.
For helpful secular resources online, a good place to start is the Canadian Centre for Child Protection at ProtectChildren.ca. Their materials include low-cost online videos for volunteers, coaches and others, plus a free 23-minute video for parents.
If you would like to speak to one of Focus on the Family Canada’s professional counsellors about this or any other topic, please call us at 1.800.661.9800 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. PT and ask to speak with the care associate.
1. To clarify, child-on-child sexual activity is not considered sexual abuse. However, where there is simulated sexual activity or persistent intrusiveness, this is often an indication that one of the children involved has been sexually abused by someone else. Sexual acts of this nature are distinct from touching and looking that is simply children’s exploratory play.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox