Preventing child molestation starts long before you leave your child at baseball practice or swimming lessons. Children are more likely to be molested by someone they know than by a stranger. Teach them to feel resolute in their ability to advocate for themselves when you aren't there to protect them.
The Unthinkable Happens
Like many parents, Anna Cameron and her husband allow their children to participate in extracurricular activities on their own. Their three boys play soccer, take swimming lessons and belong to Scouts. Tragedy hit their small community when a local Scout leader was charged with sexual misconduct involving minors. When the courts released the name of the offender, Cameron couldn't believe it was her older son's leader.
After talking to their children and counselors, the Camerons felt secure in the knowledge that they had protected their son. "We spent a week in shock, dancing around questions with our son, but in the end he hadn't been touched," Anna says. "The measures we take every day in our house paid off." The Camerons were more than just lucky; they were prepared.
Where Do You Start?
Astounding as this may sound, we need to encourage children as early as toddlerhood to say no to people they trust. By giving children choices concerning their bodies, we prepare them for the critical moment when they need to say no to an adult who intends to hurt them.
"Start by giving children small choices, and let them feel in control," says Joanne Hughes, Coordinator of Education for Citizens Concerned with Crimes Against Children. "Hair needs to be washed, but for a child who finds the experience traumatic, let him decide how often, within reason. Other harmless freedoms like wearing shorts over track pants allow him to gain a sense control over his life."
Making Choices, Making Mistakes
"Don't overreact when children make poor choices," Hughes says. "Your anger erodes your child's ability to think for himself. Replace 'I told you not to' with a much more caring phrase: 'I'm glad you told me. Now let's make a plan.'"
In a recent talk, Hughes presented a group of preteens with a problem. She asked them to imagine they had been dropped off at the theater and instead of watching the movie they came to see, they watched a restricted movie. While in the theater, someone touched them inappropriately. Would they tell their parents? Out of 75 kids, five said they might. Why? Because in telling, they feared the consequences of getting caught watching a forbidden movie.
Anna Cameron regularly talks one on one with her children. "We kibitz while doing homework or snuggling up before bed and when something big comes up, I'm usually the first to know." Communicating in all aspects of your child's life creates a safe environment for confiding without fear.
Assist children in the fine art of communication, and help them label their feelings (comfortable vs. uncomfortable). When parents are comfortable talking about sexuality, children are more likely to ask questions and not be embarrassed to divulge abuse.
Parents make mistakes. Acknowledge them and focus on fixing the problem. Actions influence children more than talk. "They get to see me as a whole person and not just their Mom. Imperfect," Cameron says. Too often children see their parents as infallible, and when they make a bad choice, they feel no one will understand.
What If Something Does Happen?
Frequently, molestation begins when an offender touches a child on the shoulder or back before moving to more intimate areas. If this contact makes a child feel uncomfortable, he needs to share his feelings with a teacher, counselor, nurse or parent. It may be innocent, but if your child is uncomfortable, he needs to know you will listen.
Hughes counsels children once they disclose abuse and prepares them for court, guiding them through the witness program. Her experiences have taught her that many children see the world as "us against them." They feel their parents don't understand what it's like to be a kid.
School counselor and mother of two boys Carol Jacobs agrees with Hughes. She talks to many children who won't tell Mom and Dad because "they don't understand." Parents need to talk openly about sex and be honest when asked questions. "Don't give them cutesy answers or half the story," Jacobs says. "If they're asking, tell them what they want to know."
Remember to talk about all body parts on even terms. Pet names for genitalia passively teach children to feel shame about their body. At the same time, don't overload them. "Keep the communication open but respect their signals indicating when they want to stop. Don't force the issue and tell them more than they can handle," Jacobs says.
How do you protect your child from an adult who wants to hurt him? Involve yourself. Before you leave your child with any group or organization, meet the leaders. Learn their names and get to know them. Don't leave as soon as you drop him off. Stay for a few minutes, and watch how everyone interacts. Come back early and watch the wrap-up. Jacobs says this isn't paranoia. "A responsible parent checks up and knows what is going on."
When your child comes home from a camping trip or day excursion, ask questions. "Where did you sleep? Who did you chum around with?" Keep it light and conversational. Never directly question a child about abuse. If a child has experienced something, open communication will unlock the door quicker than threatening questions.
In reality, we can provide our children with only limited protection. As they grow older and spread their wings, they spend time with more people without you. Involve your children in developing a flexible personal safety program and include discussion of "what if?" scenarios. Give them options.