“Protecting Kids from Other Kids”
We’ve taken the problem of child sexual abuse very seriously, as evidenced by a 38 percent decline in the incidence of abuse from 1993 to 2006 according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources. We do a better job educating kids, investigating allegations, and incarcerating offenders. Even so, two statistics frighten any parent when it comes to sexual abuse. Abusers are overwhelmingly (at least 90 percent of the time) known to their victim. Thirty-six percent of the time the sexual offender is another child.
This leaves parents in a serious quandary. It’s easy to tell kids to stay away from strangers. How do you warn them about their own siblings, cousins, uncles or friends?
Sexual abuse typically occurs in an environment of secrecy and emotional manipulation. Parents can help protect their children by making sure that they are knowledgeable and emotionally strong to deal with such issues. This means engaging children early and often in uncomfortable conversations.
1. Early. When the sexual offender is twelve years of age or younger, they are most likely (57 percent of the time) to select children under six years old. Teen offenders (between 12 and 17) prefer children 11 to 14 years of age 43 percent of the time.
This means that discussions about privacy should begin when your child is a toddler, and starts with giving them the correct vocabulary to identify their own body parts. I don’t understand parents’ insistence on making up confusing words (“privates”, etc.) to describe sexual organs. Use naturally occurring events such as bath time, visits to the doctors, etc. to educate your kids about privacy and the importance of speaking with us whenever they encounter an uncomfortable situation.
2. Often. Engaging your kids in a discussion of privacy, sexuality, and emotional coercion should be a regular event. Tell your children that sexual offenses are rarely committed by strangers. Get ready to answer lots of tough questions.
3. Uncomfortable Conversations. I’ve treated hundreds of sexual abuse victims in my practice, most of whom knew that the sexual acts were wrong but felt fearful about telling someone. The solution is to create an environment where kids feel safe talking with you about tough issues.
Psychologists call this process “desensitization.” The repeated exposure or discussion of some uncomfortable topic in a safe environment makes that conversation less anxiety provoking. Readers of this column know that I’m a big fan of mealtimes as the venue for discussing real-life issues. Use examples from school, work, family, or media events to engage your kids in real conversations.
When kids are courageous enough to talk about matters of substance, make sure they get your understanding rather than a lecture. Don’t act as if you have to solve all your kids’ problems. Often all they need is your warm presence and support.
This topic was easy compared to what’s coming up in next week’s column. How do you help your teen from becoming a sexual offender?
For more information:
Read part one of the series “Sexual abuse of kids by kids”
Dr. Ramey discusses How to prevent another Penn State