I think a lot of women can relate to or at least begin to imagine the horrors associated with sexual assault since I think we’ve all fallen victim to unsolicited sexual attention from men at various points in our lives. It’s so damaging – emotionally and physically. I worry constantly for my two little girls as they grow up in a world where more and more people are crooked and selfish and so willing to take advantage of them. When I was 24, I struggled to recognized regular, unsolicited touching until this person (that was supposed to be someone I could trust) blatantly took advantage of me. Even at that point, I questioned whether I should say anything. It’s still something that I struggle to admit. But at 24 years old – as a smart, grown woman – I was betrayed, molested, and confused about it. I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t scantily dressed, I wasn’t on a date, I didn’t send a single cue that could be interpreted as “consent”. It happened regularly, at home. It was a relative – through marriage. It started as “accidental” touching of my butt, then my breasts. More hugs and obligatory shows of “affection”…It made me uncomfortable but I couldn’t justify why. My ex husband didn’t take me seriously. He took the side of the offender. Even when the offender blatantly molested me, my then-husband and partner didn’t believe me. I questioned myself and the feelings I was having… until finally another family member confessed that she had experienced similar, but worse things from the offender…the abuser.
This, combined with my first husband’s affair (all sexual betrayal), has had massive, lasting effects. I do not trust men. I’ve learned from these experiences that people can trick you. People can be very good at lying. And some people don’t give a darn about anyone besides themselves..
So what about my two little daughters? At a point in their lives when they’re conditioned to listen to adults, will they speak up if the same thing (or worse!) happens to them? Will they recognize that something is being done to them that shouldn’t be? Will the abuser tell them to be quiet and not tell anyone? I lose sleep at night thinking about this. I have anxiety when I leave them in the care of anyone other than myself – at daycare, on play dates, with relatives…my brother, my current husband, my new father-in-law… I wish I didn’t feel this way. I wish I could enjoy the beautiful gift of trust and safety. But as a mother, I can never risk this kind of act happening to my own children. This has led me to researching ways I can prepare my daughters for such experiences and help them to avoid them all together.
Keeping my daughters safe starts with a conversation.
We have to have conversations about their bodies: which parts of their bodies are special and private, what types of touching are okay and what’s not, and how they should tell us if someone touches them inappropriately. As my daughters are still very young, we aren’t yet talking about sex and reproduction. But we are talking about vagina’s, butts, boobies, and penises. Feeling a little blindsided by my use of all those words? Well, it’s important that the girls know exactly what their body parts are called. This leads me to the first step to having this conversation…
1. Use the real names for their body parts.
Cute, made-up names for private parts like “boo-boo’s” instead of ‘breasts’ can be confusing. My daughters habitually call any part of their undercarriage (vagina or butt) their “body”. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. Something I said must have stuck in their little minds and now any time the say “My body hurts”, I have to try and figure out which part of their body they’re talking about – it’s usually their lady bits. Can you see how this makes recognizing sexual abuse tricky? It’s easy to dismiss complaints about “body pain” and mistake it for growing pains or something somewhere else on their body. If Q comes to me and says “My vagina hurts”, I’m instantly going to ask more questions.
Also, my daughters know they have a butthole (are you blushing as much as I am?) inside that butt of theirs. We aren’t yucky and silly about it. They just know it’s there. I decided to draw attention to this part of their body because it is not uncommon for a predator to take advantage of a little human’s body in this place. Gosh, just writing about this makes me sick but I think it’s so important. If Q comes to me saying her butt hurts, I’m going to assume she fell down. If she says her butt hole hurts, I’m going to launch an investigation. Call me overprotective, I don’t care.
2. Teach them about inappropriate touching.
This one is tricky. The general rule of thumb is that anything your swimsuit covers is private and therefore should not be touched by others. The same goes for the girls – they shouldn’t touch anyone’s privates either. But what about tummies? Or the kind of touching that leads to the touching of privates like rubbing, petting, wrestling or tickling? I just imagine the ways that a predator would weasel their way into tricking a little child by playful touching and persuading.
This is where regular conversations about our feelings come into play. The girls and I talk about our feelings and how certain events affect our hearts and heads. It’s great when experiences make us happy, silly, and safe. But when we are confused, sad, scared, hurting, they can talk to mom or dad and we can help them figure things out. Is this a fail safe solution? I don’t know. I hope so. Leave a comment if you have more suggestions.
3. Adults should never ask a child to keep a secret.
Just don’t do it. Nothing should be an exception to this rule. Not mom’s birthday present, or the family news of an expectant baby or upcoming move. So often, a predator will ask their victim to keep their assault a secret. They’ll sugar coat it, convincing the child it’s special. They’ll scare them with violence. They’ll embarrass them with shame. If your child knows that secrets aren’t allowed in any case, then this request will act as a red flag. It will make them feel funny. It will stir something inside of them to talk to mom and dad.
4. Strange danger is NOT the greatest threat.
80-90 percent of child abuse comes from someone the child knows. They are more likely to be abused by a family member or close family friend than a stranger. This can make the abuse even more confusing for a child and has damaging effects on their mental health and relationships for years to come. For this reason, our family has nixed sleepovers. For one, I got into tons of trouble when I slept at my friend’s houses when I was younger. But a more pressing reason is because too often, I meet people who have experienced child abuse from close relatives and family friends; we just aren’t going to risk it. We bend the rule with cousins, but our kids never share beds, doors always stay open, and spouses are well trusted members of the family. If my brother-in-law acted in any kind of way that made me question his morals even the slightest, sleepovers would be off the table. Even the spouses of some of my close friends make me wonder – so I just don’t go there.
5. If your child comes to you, don’t brush them off.
Make sure you are building a relationship with your children that allows them to feel safe when approaching you with awkward conversations. If they expect you to explode or belittle them, it will damage their trust in coming to you with problems. Remind them regularly that if they want to talk to you about inappropriate touching or bad feelings they’ve been having, that you will stop, drop, and listen.
Warning Signs Of A Pedophile
Some of these signs by themselves are not a cause for alarm. But typically, if you notice a combination of these things in an individual, it’s best to protect yourself and your children from them.
- Chooses time spent with children over peers their own age in social settings
- Allows or encourages children to do things the parent wouldn’t usually allow
- Talks about a child or their body parts using words like ‘stud’ or ‘sexy’
- Seems interested in the sexual activities of kids and teens
- Request their adult partner to dress or act like a child/teen during sexual activity
- Views child pornography
- Frequent, task-interfering masturbation
- In a position working with children, in addition to other signs
- Often photographing or videoing children
- Gives frequent gifts to a child
- Always available to babysit
- Frequents online chat rooms either to elicit victims or to communicate with other pedophiles
- Often they themselves have been victims of child abuse
- Predators are usually very intelligent
- Lacking empathy
- Good manipulators
- Notoriously friendly, kind, nice, engaging, and likeable
Remember that anyone can be a predator: man or woman, attractive or unattractive, young or old, responsible, successful, or totally broke and useless. Appearances are easy to fake.
Warning Signs That Your Child Is Being Abused
- Exhibiting sexual behavior that is way beyond their years
- Regressive behavior
- Withdrawal or isolation from others
- Increase in hostile or aggressive behavior
- Sudden fear of the dark
- Regular nightmares
- Sleep patterns change
Minimize Opportunities For Predators To Take Advantage Of Your Child
Watch for adults desiring one-on-one time with your child. Once they’ve established a relationship with their victim, they will then look for opportunities to abuse them. If a tutor requests alone time or an adult mentions one-on-one camping trips, sleep overs, or even trips to the movies, this kind of private time is inappropriate and risky.
Watch for anyone offering praise or singling your child out as “special”. Predators single children out, making them feel special, and manipulate them to create a relationship they can take advantage of. There will be coaches, teachers, or other community leaders that praise your child but be wary of adults overly praising your child.
The children of single mothers are especially vulnerable. Child sex abusers take advantage of women with children. Introducing a new partner to your children should only be done after extreme vetting and time alone between the new partner and your children should be done with extreme caution.
Seriously consider the potential consequences of sleepovers. If your family chooses to allow sleepovers, make sure you know the parents well. Visit their home. Establish relationships so you can use your best judgment. Be clear on the planned events, who will be there with your children, and whatever else should be considered to keep your children safe.
Vet all after school or daycare programs thoroughly. Even after criminal background checks, employees in after school or daycare programs can still prove to be a threat to your child’s well being. One way you can protect your child in this situation is to ask what the facilitators do to protect against child abuse in their program. You should also be sure to meet anyone who will be working with your child. Ask the program director to introduce you to all of the employees that interact with your child. You’ll be able to assert yourself as the parent who is paying attention which can be a deterrent for a sexual predator.
React As Soon As You Find A Reason To Do So
If you suspect for any reason that something isn’t right, talk to your child. Asking open-ended questions will help them to open up about events and feelings. “What did you do at your dad’s house this weekend?” will get a more valuable response than “Did you have fun at your dad’s house this weekend?” Also, adding to the conversation about your own experiences will open the door to more trust. By sharing something like the following – “Sometimes I feel bad after visiting with my friends, but when I talk to dad about it, he helps me feel better” – you’re signaling to your child that you, too, have had problems that you needed help with and your partner/their father was able to help them.
If you think you have cause for concern, do something about it. You are their protector. If you don’t take care of them, then who will? Sexual abuse can make or break your child and have lasting effects on the rest of their lives. With your help, they can stay safe. If abuse occurs, you are going to be a key player in finding them the help and healing that they need.