Prevention and warning signs
Know Who's In Your Child's Life
Since we can't always be right there with our kids, we need to know that they are always in supervised situations with trustworthy adults. Today many youth organizations have policies such as the Boy Scouts of America's "two-deep leadership" rule, which requires at least two adults on all outings. If your child belongs to a group with this guideline, make him aware of it so he can tell you if it's not being used.
Similarly, check whether your child's day care, school, and after-school programs have an open-door policy, along with either an actual open door or a window into every room where kids spend time. (Many classrooms have at least a small window built into each door.) Ideally, this should be combined with regular, unexpected visits by supervisors. In fact, for any situation that's innately private (such as counseling), there should be a door with a window, so you always have the chance to observe, says Johnson.
If you use a nanny or another unsupervised caregiver, don't stop with a check of her background and references. Occasionally drop in unannounced. And make it clear that you don't want your child left in someone else's care without your permission, since it's possible that a friend or a family member of the caregiver could have sexual- behavior problems, says Johnson. This is particularly important if care takes place in a home where other grown-ups or older kids may be around.
Get to know the coaches, clergy, teachers, and other adults in your child's world and observe how they interact with her. Show up to practice, involve yourself in activities, and volunteer in the classroom. And if anything feels off, talk to other parents and compare notes. "Listen up when they express concerns or uncomfortable feelings, and strategize as a group about how you can ensure the safety of one another's kids," says Kristen Houser, vice president of communications and development for the anti-sexual violence coalition Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, which founded the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
It's also crucial to become acquainted with your children's friends. Pay special attention to friendships involving older kids, which can lead to vulnerable situations. More than a third of those who sexually abuse children are under the age of 18 themselves. In many instances, a child may not grasp that his actions toward another child are harmful, says Deborah Donovan Rice, executive director of Stop It Now!
Recognize Red Flags
Only one in five kids who have been sexually abused will report it, says Robin Castle, child sexual abuse prevention manager at Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. (The majority of survivors wait until they're older to talk about it.) "It's very, very hard for a child to disclose, even under the best of circumstances," she explains. So you need to watch for warning signs. "If your child tells you that he doesn't want to be around a particular person or take part in certain outings, take him seriously," says Lee, who speaks from personal experience. As a child she was abused repeatedly by an uncle who told her no one would love her if they found out what she'd done. She kept quiet but tearfully dreaded annual gatherings at the family's summer cabin.
Some children may show physical signs such as unexplained urinary infections, redness, or swelling in the genital area. Other kids may have stomachaches, headaches, or sudden bedwetting. Behavioral signs can include angry outbursts, sleep problems, withdrawal, or a drop in grades. Sexual precociousness is another worrisome sign; perhaps the child starts making sexual comments or showing inappropriate sexual behaviors. Of course, none of these actions points specifically to sexual abuse, but they may warrant a consultation with a child psychologist or a pediatrician who's been trained in child abuse.
Above all else, keep this in mind: "If you suspect that your child—or any child—has been abused, the most important thing is to not investigate it on your own," insists Johnson. Extensive questioning may jeopardize an ensuing investigation. Instead, immediately report your suspicion to your state child-protection-services agency (find a state-by-state list at childwelfare.gov).
How to Talk About Abuse
If your child ever discloses abuse to you, you have one main responsibility: "Listen for all you're worth, and be loving and supportive," says Johnson. Incidents reported by children are rarely false, experts agree. There's no template for this discussion; it depends heavily on the child's age, the possible suspect, and how long ago the potential abuse may have occurred. But you should follow certain guidelines. First, have the conversation in private. Be aware of your body language: Lean forward, make eye contact, and get close to his eye level to help your child feel more comfortable, says psychologist Julie Medlin, Ph.D., coauthor with Steven Knauts, Ph.D., of Avoiding Sexual Dangers: A Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Child.
Immediately reassure your child that you believe him and that he did the right thing by telling you. Keep your questions open-ended ("What did you do together?" "What happened next?"), avoiding detailed ones that are suggestive, such as "Did he put his mouth on your penis?"
Unfortunately, some parents deny the abuse ("Your Uncle John would never do such a thing!"), blame the child ("How could you let this happen?"), or become hysterical ("I'll kill him!"). Such responses can cause kids to shut down or alter their story out of fear. Instead, reiterate to your child that you are not upset with him and that it's not his fault.
If there's any good news here, it's this: "Sexually abused children who receive support and help can and do heal," says David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. Research has shown that the majority of sexually abused kids grow up with no significant mental-health or behavioral problems, he adds. The factors that appear to help include social support, strong self-esteem, and a child's understanding that she was not to blame for the abuse. Child psychologists and psychiatrists with specialized training can help kids begin the process of overcoming the trauma. This is why it's so crucial for children to speak up. "Keeping the secret can subliminally reinforce feelings of shame that can be harmful later in life," says Houser.
Though as a child I chose not to disclose my abuse—fearing that it would cause turmoil in our close-knit community—I thrived anyway. But I am well aware that I'm more fortunate than many people who have been through a similar experience. When I try to understand why I came out of the experience relatively unscathed, I believe it stemmed from my self- confidence and my refusal to take any blame. Both were inspired by my parents' unconditional love.