US Catholic Faith in Real Life

How to protect our children from sexual abuse

By Dolores Curran | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Preventing child sexual abuse begins with talking to your children about it. Dolores Curran provides some strategies to help.

This formerly confident and competent mother disintegrated as she related the story of her young son's sexual abuse. "In my wildest dreams, I never suspected my brother . . . our kids' favorite uncle . . . always willing to baby-sit for us," she said, tears beginning to flow. "I worried that I was an overprotective mother, always made sure my kids were picked up at school, were cautious around strangers, had to call home if they were going to be late. I always checked out their friends' homes and families." She shuddered and broke down, sobbing, "What more could I have done?"

It's a question many conscientious Catholic parents are asking today. Teaching kids to stay out of strangers' cars is a breeze compared to dealing with the sobering statistic that 80 percent of sexually abused children are abused by people they know and trust: relatives, neighbors, coaches, clergy, and other respected adults.

When the sex-abuse crisis surfaced in our church, parents quickly moved from disbelief and anger to child protection and preparedness, recognizing our responsibility to adequately prepare our children to fend off potential sexual abusers. Here are some steps parents can take:

Teach very young children-as young as age 1 1/2-about sacred and private parts of their bodies.

This, of course, means sex education, a subject parents and churches have avoided with tenacity. But we can't teach children to avoid sexual abuse if they don't know what it is.

There are many good resources for parents, but the simplest and most understandable rule for young children is the swimsuit rule: The area covered by your swimsuit is your private sexual area and should not be touched by anyone but your parents, doctors, and nurses. As children age, the term can change to "boundaries," but more specific sexual information will be necessary to answer their questions, so parents must be prepared to answer them.

Teach children that, while most grownups are nice, there are some who try to hurt kids by touching or tickling children's private parts.

Without causing undue fear of all adults, parents can explain that this is unacceptable behavior, regardless of who the person is-an uncle, a priest, an older child, a coach-and that if the child is uncertain, to ask the parent immediately. Some parents even illustrate appropriate and inappropriate behaviors with their swimsuit-clad youngsters.

Let children know that they are not at fault and will not be punished by reporting touching incidents but, rather, will be praised for acting responsibly.

The initial reaction universally reported by adult victims of childhood molestation is parent disbelief and reluctance to listen, a reaction that engenders lifelong guilt and self-loathing in victims. "You can tell me anything" is an effective parent mantra but only if parents are willing to listen to anything without negative consequences for the child.

Use these lessons as an opportunity to instill sexual values by word and example.

Children are confused over what's right or wrong in bodily play. When parents make it clear that examining, tickling, touching, and fondling in the swimsuit area are wrong, it's a lesson in respecting the sacredness of our sexuality. When parents come upon children playing doctor, we can state firmly-instead of overreacting-"We don't do that. We believe our private parts are holy. Now, play something else." When a sibling snaps a sister's bra strap, we can react quickly by saying, "That's not acceptable in our family."

Expose some of the techniques abusers use to entice children into sexual danger and give children easy responses.

Potential abusers usually test the vulnerability of a victim before acting by offering smutty jokes or pictures or suggesting a mutual examination of privates. If rebuffed, they back off, making a joke of it, and seek another more vulnerable victim. So we must teach our children how to stop it early.

To the fondler or purveyor of pornography, kids can stand firm with "That's off limits." To the briber, "Not interested." To the adult seeking "help," "I'm just a kid. Ask a grown-up." To the secret-keeper, "I don't keep secrets from my mom and dad." To the threatener, "I'll think about it," and then tell parents.

Watch for telltale signs of change in children.

Clingyness, irrational fears, unwillingness to participate in formerly enjoyable activities, sudden familiarity or language regarding private parts, unexplained crying bouts, withdrawal, and reluctance to interact with a baby-sitter or relative should alert parents.

A friend of mine uncovered sexual advances toward his son when the boy no longer wanted to be part of a youth band he loved. When his dad asked, "What's going on?" the relieved boy broke into tears and told him. Often children hope their parents will broach what they're afraid to initiate.

Don't force physical affection on kids.

If children want to hug a relative, fine, but forcing them to hug makes it easier for another adult to force the same. Children tend to follow politeness instructions they receive from parents, regardless of the adult asking for physical contact. Abusers tap into this inability to say no.

Instill a sense of self-worth and dignity at every opportunity.

Children who are confident of their right to say no are better equipped to handle potentially dangerous situations. While parents may occasionally yearn for a compliant, non-questioning child, we know this is the child that predators target. Giving children a sense of self-respect is our strongest weapon against child sexual abuse.

This article appeared in the June 2003 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 68, No. 6, pages 22-23).