April 28, 2008

Keeping Kids Safe

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Find more about tough talks, safety

From the Editors: April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month -- a great time to educate ourselves about how to keep children safe from abuse. DreamTeamShannonR volunteers on her children's school district's sexual abuse prevention team and is the author of an award-winning children's picture book about childhood sexual abuse, NOT IN ROOM 204.

My 13-year-old daughter Sabrina came home after school one day and told me that a teacher had said something that made her feel "weird." Rather than panicking, we decided to use the experience as a "safety drill" to talk about what had made her feel uncomfortable.

We discussed what he said ("Hey, babe!"), the context (passing in the hall), and if he had ever said or done anything else to make her feel uncomfortable (he hadn't). We also talked about why this incident made Sabrina feel so "weird." She said it was just that "babe" isn't something teachers usually say. Finally, we agreed that she would tell me if anything else happened that caused her alarm.

Months later, it turned out that incident was a fluke, one-time-only comment, and that nothing troubling was going on with this teacher. What pleased me most was that Sabrina knew what to do -- and did it -- when something uncomfortable popped up on her radar screen.

At age-appropriate levels, I have given my children the information they need to keep them safe from sexual abuse, and to know what to do if sexual abuse happens to them. Through the years, I've taught them about names of body parts and human sexuality, instructed them not to speak with or go anywhere with strangers, explained what childhood sexual abuse is, and assured them that no matter what anyone else tells them, they should always tell me if something happens to them.

At first, I worried that teaching my children about sexual abuse would rob them of their innocence. I soon found out that my safety advice, given in an educated, calm, and ultimately empowering way, protected their innocence and their personal safety.

All child abuse is odious, but many parents don't realize how prevalent childhood sexual abuse is, in particular. Most sources agree that childhood sexual abuse happens to one in four girls and one in six boys by the time they reach age 18.

Many parents also don't realize that while "stranger danger" education is important, the vast majority of childhood sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, such as a relative, an adult in a position of trust, or an older or larger child.

Research shows another important fact about childhood sexual abuse, too: Most kids who are sexually abused don't tell when it happens to them. Some don't understand what's happening, some don't have the vocabulary to describe the abuse, others are afraid, and some are manipulated by abusers to keep the secret.

Here are some resources I've used to educate myself and my family about sexual abuse:

  • Darkness to Light (www.darknesstolight.org) is an organization devoted to raising awareness about childhood sexual abuse. This nonprofit organization also offers "Stewards for Children" training seminars for adults.

  • Child Help (www.childhelp.org) offers information and a national hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) where concerned adults can report suspected cases of abuse and get information.

  • The Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) offers statistical information, as well as guidelines for youth-serving organizations to help establish policies and procedures that keep kids safe from sexual abuse.

    Have you discussed abuse topics with your children? If so, what is your approach? Click the comments link below to find and share ideas.

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