The sexual abuse of children is a topic none of us as parents wish to think about. But unfortunately, we must educate ourselves about it at some point, so that we can educate our kids. This education is crucial because of how easy it has become for abusers to zone in on children these days.
Before technology became so advanced, the only way predators could target their victims was through getting to know them personally, face-to-face. Now, with an abundance of Internet chatrooms and other online platforms that kids can easily access, it has become so much easier for predators to make our children their victims. Reports also abound of strangers using children’s photos for nefarious purposes.
And if you thought paedophilic strangers are the most common perpetrators of sexual abuse, think again. According to child sexual abuse statistics published by the National Center for Victims of Crime based in Washington, DC, abusers are often people well-known to and trusted by the child.
With all this disturbing information, it’s definitely time to arm yourself with knowledge to prevent child sexual abuse and learn how to talk to your kids about it too.
What is child sexual abuse?
The Health Promotion Board of Singapore (HPB) defines the sexual abuse of children as “when someone touches the child’s private parts without a health or hygiene reason… this can include kissing or having oral, anal or vaginal sex.”
However, UK-based child sexual abuse awareness organisation Stop It Now! says that sexual abuse goes beyond “penetration, force, pain or even touching.”
They say that “if an adult engages in any kind of sexual behaviour (looking, showing or touching) with a child to meet the adult’s sexual needs, it is sexual abuse.” This includes the manufacture, distribution and viewing of child pornography.
The impact of sexual abuse on kids
The impact of being sexually abused can be devastating on a child. The implications are both immediate and long-term and may occur at physical, emotional and psychological levels.
It is often difficult to know if a child has been sexually abused. This is because sexual abuse often happens in secret, or the child, especially if very young, may not even realise abuse is taking place.
Children often show us, rather than tell us when something is upsetting them. Because of this, the HPB advises parents to watch out for changes in their child’s behaviour that may be an indication of sexual abuse.
The following are some indications of child sexual abuse that you can look out for, based on the Child Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet published by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, USA, and from which you can learn more.
- Changes in behaviour, such as an increase in angry outbursts, being withdrawn etc
- Increased anxiety and depression
- Sleeping issues such as nightmares
- Showing anxiety about being alone with a particular person
- Displaying age-inappropriate behaviour, or sexual knowledge/language
The HPB also cautions against long-term symptoms of childhood sexual abuse that could manifest in adulthood, if not treated. These include:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Depression and suicidal thoughts
- Sexual anxiety and disorders
- Relationship problems
- Poor body image and low self-esteem
- Addiction to alcohol and drugs, self-mutilation and eating disorders
In Singapore, the sexual abuse of children is a serious crime with strict punishment involved. However, this doesn’t mean that you should be lax about talking to your children about it. Indeed, one of the best ways of prevention is awareness and equipping your child with self-protection skills.
How to talk to your kids about sexual abuse
In an article for Huffington Post, Mary L. Pulido, the Executive Director of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, says that parents should start educating their children about sexual abuse and how to protect themselves from it as early as possible.
One of the things you can do very early on is to always refer to your child’s private parts by their anatomically correct names: penis, vagina, buttocks and breasts. If you are uncomfortable doing so, then use the term “private parts”.
This makes it easier for you to talk to your children about keeping themselves safe from sexual predators when you think the time is right.
Click on the poster from SomeSecrets.info to download it and print it out.
Safe/not safe touch
Pulido, in the same article, recommends steering away from the commonly recommended “good versus bad” touch discussion and instead talk about “safe versus not safe” touch.
This makes it much clearer for the child in terms of what is right and wrong. For example, sometimes a “good” touch, like examination by a medical practitioner, can feel bad to the child, and bad touch, such as inappropriate fondling, can feel “good.” The term “safe/ not safe” gets rid of this confusion.
You can also give examples to your child of safe touches, like mummy giving her a bath, or daddy changing didi‘s diapers. Then move on to bad touches.
Pulido actually gives a script for parents to follow: “Sometimes there are people, and they could even be people that you know and like, that may try to touch your private parts in ways that make you feel sad, mad, confused or uncomfortable. These are not safe touches.The person may tell you that it’s a game, or that you will like these touches.”
After this, talk to your child about telling you or another trusted adult if this ever happens to them. What is important, says Pulido, “is that the child keeps telling until someone believes them and takes action.”
You should also talk about what your child should do if the perpetrator tells the child to keep the abuse a secret. The following is the conversation that Pulido recommends:
“Even if the person who is touching you makes you promise not to tell, or tells you that they will be mad at you or they may hurt you, or someone you love, if you tell, that does not matter. What they are doing is bad and not your fault. You must not keep it a secret, you must tell me right away. Then, I promise that I will take the steps needed to keep you safe.”
Remember to reinforce that sexual abuse is never the child’s fault. It is always the abuser’s fault.
- Reiterate from a very young age that your child’s body is private and belongs to her and only her. Tell your child it’s fine to say “no” to an adult who touches her body in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable.
- It’s true that we are taught to respect elders in our society. But teach your child that respect does not equate to blind obedience. The HPB advises parents to tell their child that if an adult — including family members — asks her to do something that makes her uncomfortable, it’s okay to not obey that adult.
- Never force your child to gives hugs and kisses to relatives, friends or other acquaintances.
- Set aside time every day to talk to your child about her day. Experts suggest giving your child the chance the talk about any worries or concerns they might have by asking open-ended questions like, “Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”, rather than sticking to questions such as “How was your day?”
- Do not let your child access the Internet in her room or anywhere else where you can’t see her. Have your home computer placed in a common room in the house and ban her from entering any online chatrooms.
What to do if you think your child is being sexually abused
Parents, if you think that your child is being sexually abused in any way, the HPB advises you to first stay calm and reassure your child that you believe her and that what happened is not her fault. Then take your child to a healthcare professional or hospital right away for a health check. You may also want to make a police report.