Monday, January 21, 2013

10 tips to protect your children from being sexually abused


This year I am going to write every blog post I have always wanted to write but was too scared to share. Some of you are not going to like the type of blog posts I have planned. They will make you uncomfortable and they will make you think about yourself and your family. I make no apologies for that.  One of my personal blog goals is to use my blog to be a voice for children who have no voice. For the many, many children around Australia and the world who are sexually abused each and every day. 

I am a survivor and thriver of childhood sexual abuse. I have no problem sharing that. It does not define me but it sure has shaped me. As a mother and parent I am passionate about making sure childhood sexual abuse stops with my generation and is not passed on to the next generation: my children. With one in five children in Australia sexually abused in childhood and as the mother of seven children I know that the odds are seriously against me in preventing this from being passed on to my children. So I have worked really hard to make sure I keep my children as safe as I can. I know I can't protect them from everything but the things I can protect them from, I WILL.

With this in mind I want to share with you my tips for protecting your children from sexual abuse. Of course these tips are in no guarantee that your children will be safe but my hope is that after reading this you will take time to educate your children, talk to them about protecting their bodies and will pay more attention to how your children are feeling and behaving. You may feel that I am being a little over the top with my advice but as a survivor of this evil, I can't help but be passionate about protecting my children. Even if you only implement one of these suggestions, you are helping to stop prevent childhood sexual abuse around the world. Here we go:

***

1. Have no family secrets: One of the ways that abusers manipulate a child is through secrecy and silence. They tell the child that the abuse is their private secret. A secret so special it is just shared between the two of them. By doing this they try to make the child feel special and they constantly remind them that it is just between the two of them only. When an adult tells a child to be quiet or to keep a secret, a child will generally obey. They see the adult as the authority figure and will do what they say. Children who are abused hear such statements such as: "Don’t you ever tell anyone. No one will believe you anyway. If you tell, I’ll hurt your family. If you tell, I’ll keep hurting you. It’ll always be our secret."

It is important to tell our children that if someone tells them to keep a secret, they should immediately come and tell you what it is. Teach your children the difference between a secret and a surprise. A secret is something that you are told not to tell anyone else. A surprise is something fun you are going to do for someone to help them feel happy, like giving them a birthday present. Children need to know that no matter what the secret is, it is always fine to tell Mum or Dad. This needs to be emphasised and repeated over and over again. Children need to be constantly reminded that they can come and tell you anything at any time and that we have no family secrets in our homes.

2. Don't force children to show affection: One thing that I worry about a lot personally, is when I see parents forcing their children to show affection to other people. I know most parents act innocently when doing this and they do it out of love but as a victim of childhood sexual abuse I panic when I see children acting scared and crying when being asked to kiss grandpa, aunty, uncle, cousin, family friend etc. Often these children are told off for behaving in such a way and the parents tell them off because they are embarrassed that their child won't show love towards that person. For me, I say who cares if they don't want to kiss or hug someone. What if they are scared for a reason? What if the way they are acting is their way of telling you they don't feel safe? What if that person you are making your child kiss goodbye is hurting them...what message are you sending your child by making them kiss them? To the child it shows that you encourage it. 

Next time your child clings to you and doesn't want to kiss grandpa or uncle ... let it go, make no fuss and simply leave. Find the time later on to talk to your child and ask them why they don't want to do it. Ask them how they feel about that person and really listen to what they say. It might be nothing at all but it also might be because they are scared and are being hurt. 

3. Talk to children about their bodies: From an early age, talk and educate your children about their bodies. Make your conversations age appropriate, simple and use real names of body parts, not fun made up names. As a parent, determine what you want your children to know and understand to protect themselves. Teach them that they have special or private or sacred parts of their bodies that no-one is allowed to touch, even family members. If you have young children that need help 'cleaning' certain parts of their body make sure they know that only Mum or Dad are allowed to help in that way and sometimes a Doctor may need to have a look or touch their bodies but that Mum or Dad will always be with them. These parts of our bodies are not to be used for games and are to be respected. For example: teach your children that any part of your body that is covered by a swimsuit is private.

Sadly, most cases of abuse happen by someone that a child already knows: a family member or a family friend. They need to know that even family members can hurt them. You do not need to go into a lengthy conversation about stranger danger or mean family members. More simply educate them about what is appropriate touching and what is not. Help them to see that there are boundaries with their bodies that they have every right to protect and guard from everyone around them.  

4. Role play situations: For a child, trying to imagine someone hurting them in a sexual way, is hard for them to grasp or imagine. The same applies to us as parents!!! It is also hard as a parent to work out how to realistically teach children to deal with abuse that may come their way. We really don't want our children to be thinking about sexual abuse yet we need to teach them how to deal with situations that they may be faced with. One of the best ways to do this is to role play situations they may be faced with. You can do this hopefully in a family setting, in the safety of your own home. 

Discuss what they could do and what they could say in situations that may involve someone trying to inappropriately touch them or hurt them sexually. Share with them how the touching may start out nicely and seem fun but can then end up hurting them and making them feel scared. Teach them that they can say NO, loudly and repeatedly if need be. There is nothing wrong with having to say NO over and over again! For example: Role play situations such as (make them age appropriate), If an adult asks you, "Can I touch your bottom... what are you going to say?"...(child) "NO!" or if a friend asks you, "Can I see your penis...what are you going to say?"...(child) "NO!".

My children all know that if anyone tries to touch them in anyway that they don't like or they feel uncomfortable with that they have my permission to yell as loud as they want the word NO and any other words they feel and to then run as fast as they can. It is one of the few times my children know they are allowed to scream and scream and scream for help and to not stop until they get it. 

5. Teach about feelings: The younger children can learn about feeling safe and comfortable compared to unsafe and uncomfortable the better they are able to protect themselves. When children are young they are still developing and struggle to understand different emotions and feelings. They may describe how they feel about a person in a way you would never think of and will use simple childlike wording to attempt to share how they feel. 

For example: A child may say to you that Cousin Tom is gross or that Grandpa is dumb or that Aunty Sue is cool because she always give me presents when I help her do special jobs. Now, this is the difficult challenge as parents in relation to childhood sexual abuse: these statements can be a big challenge in trying to determine what they mean because they could mean that Cousin Tom simply had a day where he had snot hanging out of his nose in the pool one day or that Cousin Tom actually crossed the line and flashed his genitals at your child. The earlier that children learn to share how they are feeling, the easier it is as parents to protect them and to really understand what they are saying and mean by their emotions and feelings. 

One of the reasons children never speak up about abuse is because they are scared and they are ashamed. Older children can sometimes understand that what has happened or is happening is wrong. Therefore they keep quiet because they feel dirty, guilty, embarrassed, disgraced and total shame. We need to encourage children to recognise those feelings and be brave enough to speak out against them. The challenge is that we need them to know that these feelings are normal when you are abused and there is nothing wrong with feeling that way but to also recognise that what is happening is wrong so that they can speak up to protect themselves, heal themselves and to live a safe life. 

6. Have a family code word: As a family, pick a simple word that your child can say at anytime, anywhere to let you know that they are not feeling safe. For example: You could use the word dollhouse and your child could say, 'I want to play with my dollhouse' or you could use the word blanket and your child could say, 'I want my blanket'. This is so that if your child is visiting at someone's house, at a family gathering, at a birthday party or even at a park, they know they can walk right up to you, call you or message you and let you know how they are feeling. Be sure to let them know that if they say that word to you, you promise that you will act immediately and take them to safety. 

7. Use common sense: With most cases of sexual abuse happening by family members or family friends it is very important to use common sense in protecting your children. Think about situations where your children have their bodies on show so to speak. Be very protective of who changes nappies, who bathes your children, who dresses them and of where they sleep. Avoid situations where you may have an older cousin sharing a bath with a younger cousin naked, where children are left unattended to dress themselves, where adults constantly volunteer to help change and dress your children or where adults refuse to give your children any privacy. Use common sense in sleeping arrangements. Be very wary of adults or other youth age children who request and insist on special alone time in a sleeping arrangement with your child away from other adults and children.  Also chose carefully who you have as a babysitter. If your children seem afraid or don't want to be left alone with a babysitter, family member or friend, be wary and very cautious. 

8. Let them know you will always believe them: I can't stress how important this is. It is vitally important that your children know that no matter what they tell you, even if it shocks you and makes you feel sick, that you will believe what they have to say. One of the way abusers get away with abuse for so long is because they manage to convince children that nobody will believe them if they tell. Often children have no proof that the abuse is taking place and it is only their word against those who are harming them so they stay silent. This then allows the abuse to go on longer and can even span for generations.   

Make sure that your children know that if they share a 'secret' with you, that you will not get mad or upset at them. Children need to know that they have someone to talk to that they can trust and turn to when they are being hurt. They simply do not make these stories and events up! We need more children speaking up about childhood sexual abuse so that we can put an end to this evil in our country and we need more parents and caregivers who will believe them.

As a child who spoke up about sexual abuse, was not believed and was told off for saying such things, I can personally share that it is so, so damaging to not have a parent or family member to turn to for help. It is scary, lonely, it leads to the child believing it is their fault and it is soul destroying. Please, please, please from the bottom of my heart, have a relationship with your children where they can come to you with any situation or horrible story and have them know that you will believe them, love them and help them.

9. Trust your instincts: As a parent we know our children best. We can normally tell when they are acting out of character or if there has been a slight change in behaviour. If at anytime you feel uneasy or worried but can't seem to work out why, it might be because your child is being harmed in an abusive way. Please keep in mind that abusers typically do not look like bad people. They are often normal nice, helpful, kind, loving people who just happen to also be an expert at gaining trust, manipulating and harming children. As parents, we often parent our children by following our instincts. When it comes to the protection of our children, we need to be more cautious and follow all gut feelings we may have. 

10. Be repetitive: Once you have established as parents how you want to address teaching your children to protect themselves, make it a repetitive teaching. Children need to be reminded over and over again how to protect themselves and as they grow they face new challenges in this area. What you teach them also needs to change to become more age appropriate throughout the years. Do not assume that just because you told them once how to protect themselves that they now know how to do it.  There is no need to be over the top in teaching your children about sexual abuse. Even just bringing the topic up every 4-6 months will go a long way in helping to protect your children. 

***

I have shared these tips not to cause panic. I have shared these tips to help you be more educated and more aware. To open your eyes to what might be happening around you. Of course we should not spend all of our time looking at every kind family members as if they are abusers but don't think for one second that this type of thing would never happen in your family. It is happening in family homes all around the world. In homes of nice people, in homes of successful people and in homes of people we often look up to the most. Also please don't think that this type of horrible behaviour happens only from adults, children perform these acts as well, to other children. 

I know this topic is sensitive and emotional. I know teaching your children about childhood sexual abuse is hard, believe me I know it! I also know that it is extremely important and in today's society we need to start talking about this topic more and more. I hope that you have found these tips helpful even though I am not a professional, I am simply a mum and survivor. I just ask that please can you keep your eyes open and use these tips to help you trust your instincts more and to be more mindful of your children. We want our wonderful cherubs to live safe happy lives. They deserve it. Every child deserves to feel safe. 

For professional tips please check out: