Molestation – How not to raise a child victim.
Somebody asked me how to talk to one’s kids about avoiding sexual abuse without mentally screwing them up. Unfortunately, thanks to personal history, sexual abuse is going to be a hard thing for me to teach to them (and to write about). I’ve been chewing on this, though, and realized that a good portion of our social and personal lessons go a long way toward making sure that our kids stay safe.
I’m going to start with a statistic for you to keep in the back of your mind while you read the first part of this post: ”29% of child sexual abuse offenders are relatives, 60% are acquaintances, and only 11% are strangers.” -Diana Russell, The Secret Trauma, NY:Basic Books, 1986. Yes, this means that the majority of perps, about 89%, KNOW their victims – they are not strangers.
Now, on to the good stuff:
Don’t lecture your children about molestation. Their little brains can’t wrap around it. Shit, my adult brain has a hard time with it. If you try to explain it to them, you will only succeed in freaking them out, as well as yourself. You also run the risk of them misinterpreting behavior from adults and falsely accusing someone of molesting them, when it was just their teacher trying to wipe an especially poopy butt or something equally innocuous. Seriously, they don’t need to know that there are people out there who want to hurt them. Instead, give them some amazing building blocks to work with, and they will keep themselves safe.
Teach your kids to be open, friendly, and kind to people. This may seem counter intuitive, but you’ll understand why I say this in a minute. You don’t have force it on them (“Say hi to the nice butcher with the bloody apron!”), but certainly don’t inhibit it (“Don’t talk to that lady, she looks homeless!”). We encourage our daughters to order their own food, ask their own questions, and socially navigate on their own. We also treat people of all genders, sizes, abilities and races with kindness and make sure that the kids see us using “social engineering” with positive words and actions. They have never seen us yell at someone, disrespect them or treat them as an unequal. Because of that, we have two kids who are friendly, respectful, and great at reading people. Which is important.
When kids aren’t afraid of people, they have a LOT more self-confidence. Do some research on what kinds of kids molesters go after…. They love the ones that are quiet, withdrawn, shy, and emotionally closed to people. They don’t like kids who are likely to talk to others about their activities, or to say “no” when a request is made of them. Self-confidence will take your child a long way, so do what you can to help them gain it. Kind words, encouragement, group activities, social encounters, games, and acknowledging any little achievement are great confidence builders.
Allow your kids to trust their gut. Don’t blow all of their funny fears off as “silly.” Listen to what they have to say about how they are feeling – they will learn that it’s ok to come to you when they don’t feel quite right about something. Which is also really important.
Reinforce that it’s ok for them to say NO. We tickle our kids and we (gently) tease our kids. But we also teach them to say “Stop, please” when they are done with us. When they ask us to, we stop immediately, and they learn fast that asking is going to work. They learn where their personal physical and emotional boundaries are, and they feel free to communicate them. Even if some one they don’t know is doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable, they aren’t afraid to say something about it. This confidence is essential – a child molester is very unlikely to want to attempt assault on a kid who is actively telling them to stop what they are doing because they don’t like it. That same child is likely to tell another adult about what was going on. This same skill applies as they get older – they will be able to tell boyfriends or girlfriends to slow down or stop what they are doing if heavy petting is getting too heavy for their comfort level. To reinforce this behavior, we have (consensual) tickle games… we will tickle them until they say “Stop,” and then give them a break, with our hands far away, until they ask us to start up again (usually after about 10 seconds… they love being tickled!).
Teach your kids the correct names for their bits. I don’t care if it makes you flinch to hear a child say penis or vulva. Get over it. Teach your daughters about their vaginas and vulvae, and teach them about the penis on a boy – and vice versa for a boy. We hear “My vulva’s itchy!” around the dinner table here all the time. It’s a fact of life, and we treat it as if they had told us that their knee was itchy. You know what we don’t do? Give the anatomical parts some kind of pet name.
This is a true, sad story. A proper, Southern mother taught her daughter that her vagina was called a “purse,” presumably because the actual name was just too vulgar for use. When this daughter was 6, she went to the family doctor for a yearly check up and the doctor asked her if she had any medical complaints. The girl said “Sometimes, Uncle ____ puts his hands in my purse.” She knew enough to bring this up to the doctor when she was asked if something was wrong, but the doctor didn’t understand what she was talking about. The father, who was present for the exam, did, however, and was able to take steps from there. But imagine if the father hadn’t been there and the doctor just assumed that Uncle ____ was stealing quarters from the little girl’s purse? How long would the abuse have continued?
Never make them feel ashamed of their body parts. If your son is terrified to talk about his penis, or think about his penis, or touch it, or have it looked at, then you will probably NEVER know if someone else is doing something inappropriate with it. Because he will be afraid to come and talk to you about what is going on with his penis – after all, you’ve taught him that it is a nasty piece of anatomy and that you just don’t want to hear about it. Don’t shush them up, frown disapprovingly, smack their hand away or tell them that their body parts are gross. Treat the private parts like any other part of the body – matter of factly. Not with disgust, fear or delicacy. And when you “catch” them touching themselves (not “if,” but “when”), don’t freak out! If they are in their bedroom, bathroom, or somewhere else you feel like it’s ok for them to explore, then let them know that. If it’s at a restaurant, church, etc, calmly explain that this is a private act, like going to the bathroom, that is only appropriate for certain rooms and only when they are alone.
Teach them the line of appropriateness. There is a line that can be crossed, and they are allowed to know about it. My daughters know that it’s socially *not* ok to touch some one else’s vulva or penis. They understand, through words and actions, that there are some places that are ok to touch, depending on how well you know the person. Mom, Dad, and Doctor can touch their private parts. Friends can hug, and strangers can shake hands There are ways of teaching them this without completely freaking them out about strangers and without making them feeling like their privates are evil. Use the same strategies that you would use to teach something else, like when and where it’s ok to use a marker (“Markers go on paper, not on the walls.”) or to take off your clothes (“This is alright for home and Grandma’s but not at school or the supermarket”).
Give them some age appropriate sex ed. It’s alright for kids to know about sex. My older daughter knew that it takes two goats, a male and a female, to get a female goat pregnant. She knows that it has something to do with the private parts. She doesn’t have all the details yet, but she really doesn’t need to, at this point. She also knows that this making baby kind of act happens only when animals and humans are of a certain age, and that she is far from that age still.
Let them know, through actions, that they can come to you if they need to. One great way to break your kid: “Tell me all of your secrets or I will be angry.” Yeah… that’s a great way to have your child keep as much stuff from you as possible. Try this: talk to them like they are people. Laugh with them, hang with them, talk to them about your life, their life, and the world. When they hurt, emotionally or physically, acknowledge it and help as much as you can.
Forget Stranger Danger. I know that this concept is used for kidnapping as well as sexual assault, but it’s all around a bad idea (enough so that I might write an entire post dedicated just to it at some point). The short story is this: If your kids are going to molested or kidnapped, the person doing it is 89% likely to be someone that you and your child already knows – a family member, teacher, priest, coach or a friend of the family. That’s a REALLY high number. Are you going to teach your child to mistrust and fear everyone they come in contact with?
Some people say yes. Yes, they are going to imprint this on their child: “ALL STRANGERS ARE OUT TO KILL YOU.” So, then, tell me what happens when they lose their way? They have been taught not to talk to strangers, so they will continue to wander, and it will be that much longer before you see them again… unless, of course, the real bad guy is three steps behind them and waiting for them to be completely alone. How about this: “If you need help, ask anybody around you that you think can help you.” We had to undo damage from Carmen’s school when she came home to tell us that she learned that she shouldn’t talk to strangers because they were mean. It took about a week of untraining that thought and replacing it with “Most people are nice and will want to help you if you need it.”
Another helpful tip – teach your child your phone number. Put the number to the tune of a song and sing with them several times a day until they sing it with you, then back to you. This is actually fun for longer car trips. Carmen knows mine and Tyme’s (mine, to the tune of Mary had a Little Lamb and Tyme’s to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). (Carolyn might know it, too, but Carmen doesn’t let her get a word in edgewise, so it’s hard to tell.)
Here’s a bit of a catch 22… how do you tell kids “Don’t talk to strangers” and then get irritated with them when they act shy toward people they don’t know? At what age are they allowed to start interacting with strangers? Will they need a bit of therapy to undo the habits, like I did? I still fear strangers, and still find myself being paranoid around people I don’t know well. How about you? And, of course, don’t lose sight of the fact that if your child is going to be molested (or kidnapped), the odds are overwhelming that it will be someone close to, or in, your family.
When children have all the basics down, they will know when something isn’t right. If someone is touching them in their private areas, or asking them to do something that doesn’t seem appropriate, or is treating them differently than most adults do, they will catch on. If they trust you and you have a great open dialog going, they will tell you about it. Then you trust your gut and investigate. Although I’m hoping like mad that you, nor I, will ever have to.