As parents, we want to keep our kids safe. This means we need to be talking about child sexual abuse.
My friend Tobi is a Nashville pediatrician and mom of two. I recently read the below post from her on Facebook and asked if I could republish it here. She had written it in response to a friend sharing an article about how to protect your kids from sexual abuse. It's an uncomfortable subject, but one that all parents need to understand and take to heart.
After reading this, please share it with your friends. We all need to learn how to protect our children from sexual abuse.
Without going into graphic details, I probably get about 1-2 kids a month in my office who have been sexually abused or molested. Below are several points in light of the most common scenarios I've seen.
The location of an incident is likely to be at a place where you are familiar.
Places where I've heard of this happening: known family members and friends are far and away the most common. Perpetrators ages ranging from young teens to adults. It is almost always a male cousin, known neighbor, friend's older brother/cousin, babysitter, father/stepfather, uncle or mom's boyfriend. Occasionally it is a female, but that's rare unless she is grooming the kids to have access to someone else. Church youth group is the number two location, usually because there is less supervision. School, camp and sports are the other locations, but less likely unless there are kids allowed to be alone with teachers and coaches. Ask the schools and coaches and churches what their safety plans are to protect kids. It's never perfect, but I feel at least they know there are aware parents and it helps keep everyone accountable.
I wanted to address this separately because of it being a sensitive subject. My daughter is allowed to go to a select few friends' homes (like five families) for sleepovers. Never parents that I don't know extremely well, which means she doesn't get to sleep over at school friends' homes. Never large groups of kids, where one kid being separated might not be noticed. That said, I can't tell you how many times patients tell me the first time they were touched inappropriately or the first time they saw pornography was during a sleepover. I only get one chance to raise my kids and I'd rather be a mean parent who is no fun than have the other possibility.
Please use appropriate anatomical terms for body parts
Eyes are eyes, knees are knees and penises are penises (proceed with the pearl clutching). Don't use cutesy names or vague names like booty or wee wee or cookie or treasure. It confuses the matter in case something needs to be reported. It also destigmatizes those body parts.
“Safe touch” vs. “bad touch”
Make sure kids know which is which. Safe touches I usually teach are the ones that are in areas not covered by your bathing suit, like shoulders, head and feet. Safe touches are also those that make you feel calm and safe, like a hug from your mom. Bad touches are those in the areas that are covered up by underwear. They are also the ones that make you feel nervous, scared or worried. If a bigger person is touching you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, that is a bad touch. Always tell your parents or other adult about bad touches. And let kids know there should never be secrets between kids and adults and that they will NEVER get in trouble for telling someone. If a child tells you something, believe them. Kids lie to get out of trouble, not to get in to trouble, and if there is any degree of isolation or grooming involved then the child likely thinks that they will get into trouble for telling. So if they tell you something believe it.
“Stranger danger” is a fallacy
The vast majority of the time someone who molests a child is known to the family. Beware of so-called “grooming behaviors”. This is usually from an adult male (or female) who ingratiates themselves to the child and family to lower their defenses. Usually they will try to establish a trusting relationship with the family and seek opportunities to be alone with kids. They do this so that any accusations of sexual abuse from the child will seem made up. This has happened in almost every situation I have seen. Because most children are abused by a close friend or family member, most children trust their abuser. They just want the abuse to stop.
Be aware of what kids are looking at on smartphones and tablets
Especially from their friends whose parents may not monitor things so closely. I usually tell parents at every preteen and above well check that as long as they are paying for the phone and the kid is under 18, it is their responsibility to monitor their child's activities in social media, texting, etc. There are so many really clever ways for kids to hide their activity online and parents are almost always behind the 8 ball on this.
Most importantly, trust your gut
If someone seems a little off or a little too nice to your kids, trust yourself and keep your kids out of any situations where they would be alone with that person. We have all been in situations where you just want to be polite, even when someone is giving you the heebie jeebies. There is a great book called “The Gift of Fear” that talks about people forgetting to trust their intuition in potentially dangerous situations and why there are times when you need to listen to that spirit of discernment.
I don't lock my kids up and throw away the key, as much as I would love to protect them forever. But these are hopefully some practical tips as a mom and pediatrician to make your kids feel safe and to highlight some potentially dangerous situations. By the way, we start this conversation around 3- or 4-years-old in our house.
Tobi is a wife, mom to two kids and the medical director and a pediatrician for a pediatric office in Nashville, Tennessee. She loves shoes, parties and car karaoke dancing, much to her family's chagrin. Someday, her house will look like her Pinterest boards.
Other helpful resources:
God Made All Of Me: A Book To Help Children Protect Their Bodies– Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsay A. Holcomb
Please Tell: A Child's Story About Sexual Abuse– Jessie
Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept– Jayneen Sanders
My Body Belongs To Me From My Head To My Toes– Dagmar Geisler
I Said No!: A Kid-To-Kid Guide To Keeping Private Parts Private– Zack and Kimberly King
Do you have any tips for protecting your children from sexual abuse?
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Thank you so much for sharing this!
E M says
I just finished a seminar on this topic. I would add that child predators can also be children themselves as well. It’s sad and shocking but true. It makes sense too because often these child predators are preyed upon themselves and simply repeat the behavior onto other children.
I personally fell under this kind of abuse at the young age of 6. My classmate, the predator, a 7 year old girl, came over to my place with her “doctor’s kit” to practice for the talent show.. I was so mad at my parents for picking me up early from her sleepover birthday party a couple months prior, but looking back now, I’m so glad I didn’t stay.. who knows who was behind teaching her the things she did to my sister and I.. I homeschool my kids and only leave my daughter with my parents and extremely close friends for playdates. Now that she’s almost 10, we don’t do sleepovers anymore.. can’t trust anyone.. I was also molested at 13 at my aunt’s house by 3 of my male cousins all 10+years older than me..
Child predators is right! It is a scary world we live in. When I was 12 I slept over my aunts house. My aunt had her friend and her daughter visiting and me and the other girl were pretty much being forced to hang out. Everything was fine throughout the day. However, we had to share a bed together and I remember being so scared as the girl was putting her hand down my pants underneath my underwear and touching me. When she got up to use the rest room I hid in the toy chest. I stayed on top of sharp toys until the morning. I told my aunt what happened and I later found out that the other girl had been (still was) being sexually abused by her dad so she was copying the same behavior. Now I have an 18 month beautiful little girl of my own and it scares me. I don’t want to not let her experience things like sleep overs but you just never know. What a time to be alive. 🙁
No offense but to people who have gone through several incidents recently it’s not easy to read detailed stories.
I am so very sorry this happened to you. Thank you for sharing your story here.
Yes! A child predator is a very real point as this happened to one of my children. My son was in second grade at a private school where I paid for an education that I assumed number one kept him safe. I was so shattered to find out what had happened to him repeatedly just a few blocks from my house, during school hours, inside of the classroom. It was a Montessori school and a classroom with 1-3 grade. The teachers would leave the kids unattended. I was so furious that a child who was being hurt could share his pain with my child in this type of environment. Child on child is not a crime and the law will not even enforce failure to protect on the school even though they did. It saddens me. I would have had to sue the school in civil court and put our son through way too much. My son is doing better and went through counseling. I pray everyday this school would close.
I agree. I was raped at a very early age by a friends teenage brother and his friend. She even aided in getting me there because she had been a victim herself. Be aware of any change in your child’s behavior. Make sure they know no one has a right to touch them or make them feel uncomfortable. I was told “Don’t let someone…”. This only fed the guilt I felt and substantiated what my attackers said because they told me that if anyone knew what I let happen my family would hate me. I know now that wasn’t true but, as a child, I had already lost my innocence, a friend, and been brutally raped and tortured. The last thing I wanted was to lose those I loved as well so I buried it as long as I could and tried to hide both the physical and emotional scars. Empower your kids, be on the look out, and equip them with them confidence and language to describe anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
I am so very sorry you experienced this in your childhood. Thank you for your bravery in sharing here.
Lauren Outlaw says
That is so true! Thank you for adding this because some of the first encounters are seen with children in the same categories and that’s when a lot of same sex experiences start.
What a great post. I wanted to second your friend’s recommendation of the book “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. I read it a few years ago when my kids were really, really little, and it’s made me so much more aware of situation in which I’m tempted to prioritize making other people comfortable over my or my kids’ well-being. I’ve always thought that it’s a great book for women in particular, but today it also came up in conversation with a friend who works for the FBI – the agency gave it to him before they sent him to the Middle East! – so it’s considered legit in lots of realms 🙂
Thank you for posting this article. I struggle with how to warn my kids about these dangers without scaring them. I also struggle with how to warn them about abduction and human trafficking and what to do if someone tries to grab them. It’s a scary world we live in and I don’t want to freak them out but I don’t want to pretend like it couldn’t happen either. Does the pediatrician have any advice for broaching that topic?
There are some cute kids’ books that discuss good touch/bad touch and private parts. I like No trespassing- this is my body by Pattie Fitzgerald.
My children know that unless myself or their father have said out of our own mouths that somebody is going to be picking them up, then they’re never to go or get in a car with anyone, regardless of who it is. We also have a ‘code word’ if someone else is going to collect our child. So our kids know that unless that person, once again regardless of who it is i.e. Mum or dads best friend, Aunty, uncle, even grandparents, unless they can tell them what the code word is (and it always changes and can sometimes be the most silliest of words) then we haven’t given them permission to pick up our kids and they are NOT to go with them and to then go and stand with a teacher (if at school) or coach (if at sport) and have them call us immediately. Just an option for parents to use.
Thank you for this blog.
There’s many blogs going around about why parents don’t allow sleepovers. But what age do you think they should be allowed to start? (I haven’t seen anyone address that.)
We extend these beliefs to camp and are praying about when we *would* allow our son to go.
I would also like to add that as an adult if something seems off to you in a situation and you feel that somethings just not right please say something I lived in a proverbial hell for six years and as an adult many people came to me and said once they knew what was going on in my childhood that they thought something was off they didn’t think that things looked right but they never said anything and when I ask them why didn’t you say anything why didn’t you talk to me at least if you wouldn’t talk to an adult in my life their answer was they were uncomfortable and they weren’t sure it just seemed off please have the uncomfortable conversation because if your gut says something is wrong somethings wrong I’m not saying go in guns blazing but at least talk to the child in the way they feel safe or talk to someone don’t just ignore it and wait till years later once you find out that your fears were confirmed it might save someone’s life
Thank you for bravely sharing your story. I am so very, very sorry for what you experienced as a child. xoxo
Cindy Ivey says
You should also check out the Safe Hearts books by Damsel In Defense. They offer some really enlightening statistics that back up this article 100% as well as books with scenarios that are safe to discuss with your children to cover “tricky situations” without scarring them or teaching them to fear everyone. I love these books!
Also, relatives and friends of parents should never insist that a child hug or kiss them. I have always told my nephew that he never has to hug me or my partner. He can choose to high-five, shake hands, hug, or whatever makes him comfortable. If a child unknown to me drops a toy or shoe in the street and I pick it up, I hand it back to the parent while telling the child, “Do not ever, ever take anything from someone you don’t know.”
Great advice here! Thank you for sharing.
This might sound crazy but always let your child know that it’s ok to talk to you, even if they did something wrong. I always let my son & daughter know that. That fear kept me silent & I wanted my kids to know that whatever they could have ever done wouldn’t compare to an adult hurting a child and they would never be in trouble. I also told them that if they ever felt uncomfortable, even if for a reason they couldn’t explain, they could call me from a sleepover to be picked up and I wouldn’t be mad. That “spidey sense” is something we should all teach our children to be aware of – instincts go a long way when it comes to this subject. I still trust mine!!!
Yes, we do this with our children too. SUCH good advice.
Thanks for this. The first time I was “touched” it was by a boy about my age (about 6yrs old). He was a cousin of a friend and everytime he came over with the other kids he’d call for “mummy and daddy” games. I didn’t understand it then and never spoke about it, but its definitely made me a protective mum over my little one. I never leave the kids to play without proper and trust worthy adult supervision and they are never out of sight. I definitely agree that giving kids liberty to come out and speak no matter what, even if they don’t understand is very important. May God help us all to be the best parents and guardians as he has called us to be. Again, thanks for this very needed article, in these very bad times.
I just wanted to point out that sometime the abuse physically feels good. So telling your child about bad touch doest address that. Ive explained to my girls how their bodies work so they know. If you dont tell them they could feel ashamed to tell. Thats was my experience as a child. I didnt know it was wrong cause it didnt always hurt.
Yes so very true. I didnt say anything cause it didnt hurt or feel bad. Only later on I realised how very wrong it was for a 16 yr old boy to touch a 7 year old girl. I am very protective with my girls now.
Summer Ann says
Also, one thing we teach our parents is to re-phrase the word “secret”. Many perpetrators will ask children to keep their activities a “secret” which children will comply with because it makes them feel special.
We encourage parents to use the word “surprise” instead of secret, and to educate their children that secrets should be told to a trusted adult.
Example: “We don’t have secrets, but we have surprises” The ideology being that all surprises are meant to be shared, eventually. Secrets are taught not to be shared, and have no definitive timeline.
We have a open door play policy in our house, doctors and nurses mums and dads are played with their pants ON. We don’t have secrets and our girls know that their bums, fanny’s and boobs are special only to them untill they are married then it will also be special to their partner. We felt we needed to give them a reason that they needed to keep it special and safe for the babies they will have when they are married. Nothing is a taboo subject in our house.
Obviously you don’t need to get into details about sexuality with young children, but I just wanted to respectfully point out that a) your kids might not choose to get married, b) they might still choose to be sexually active, c) they might not be heterosexual, d) they might not want to have children, and e) abstinence-only education doesn’t work. By all means teach your daughters that their bodies belong to them, but that doesn’t change once they are married anyway.
Thank you for writing this. I think it’s also important to teach your kids not to have secrets, only surprises. Often adults will say to your kid “let’s keep this a secret.” If your kid knows to say “we don’t have secrets in my house” then they will know to tell you.
you can do everything right to protect your child and it still can happen. It happened to my daughter at grandma and grandpa’s house. A cousin came to swim and while grandma cooked dinner kids came in from pool to change and he went into my daughters room and took advantage of her. When grandma noticed it was taking long time to change she went to check on things and cousin ran upstairs. Cousin then bragged to my son who told grandpa. We talk about these things with our kids and thank goodness we did so it was only a one time incident. It is so important to tell our children to also “tell”when they know it happened to someone else.
Wow. Yes, talking is so important. Thank you for sharing here.
Anonymous Female says
The article states that it is “rare” for the offender to be female. Don’t let this lull you into a false sense of security. I was abused by three different females, and it wasn’t because I was being groomed for a male. It happens. Everyone is equally suspect.