Child sexual abuse: mitigating the risks

The statistics on sexual abuse can be frightening: 20% of girls and 8% of boys under the age of 18 experience it in some form.  Here Dr Nina Burrowes, who specialises in the psychology of sexual abuse, offers advice on how best to help your child stay safe

upset pre-teen girl

Don't rely on 'stranger danger' 

Children are much more likely to be abused by someone they know than a stranger. Telling children solely about the risks of strangers may make them less alert to the risks they are more likely to face. It can also mean they might not recognise abuse if it happens to them, because they have been taught the wrong signs to look for. Educating children about sexual abuse means teaching them about their bodies, body respect, and how to talk about complicated things such as relationships, sex and consent.

It's best not to force children to show affection

Parents might think it polite for their child to show affection to others, but insisting on this can inadvertently teach them they don't have a choice about whom they kiss or touch. Children should be encouraged to be clear when they do not want to touch someone else, and this choice should be respected by others. If parents feel embarrassed when their child chooses not to show affection to others, they can explain that they are teaching their child about body respect. This is an important lesson for everyone to learn.  

Get to know the people in your child's life

Offenders need an opportunity to commit an offence. The parent who takes an interest in everyone, who shows up early, pops in unannounced and is generally involved, will reduce these opportunities. Parents can also get to know everyone who has access to their children, especially those who have an opportunity to be alone with them.

Call it what it is

Young children are naturally curious about their bodies, and their questions should be answered honestly and fully. We tell children that their nose is called a 'nose'; we should give the correct names to a vagina and a penis too. Separating these body parts out by giving them pet names can teach children that these parts of the body are childish, or something to be ashamed of. Similarly, children's questions should be answered whenever and wherever they ask them. Shutting down conversations could make children feel they have asked something wrong, or that there are body parts they shouldn't talk about. Let them know that any time is the right time to talk about these things.

Don't expect your child to tell

Children find sexual abuse very confusing and upsetting, and might not be able to tell their parents if they have been abused. Keeping alert for signs such as behaviour changes, mood swings, withdrawal, problems at school, reluctance to spend time with certain people, nightmares or bed-wetting is important. Parents can also make it easier to share what's happening by being a role-model, and sharing the things that are worrying them. Older children could also be encouraged to write things down in a letter if they aren't able to talk about them.

Keep some perspective

Sexual abuse is a genuine risk, but parents shouldn't lose sight of the fact that as well as protecting their children, they want them to grow into adults who are confident about their bodies, sex and other people. There is a balance between protecting children from the possibility of abuse and letting them have an open life in which they are exposed to new people and new experiences.  

Dr Nina Burrowes is the author of Eyes open to sexual abuse - what every parent needs to know and The courage to be me.

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