Protecting children from sexual abuse

A child’s first line of protection is the quality of everything we do as parents. We don’t expose them to danger, are careful who we entrust them to, listen to their feelings and concerns, and teach them to value themselves. These general practices and patterns are usually the best way to ensure children’s safety in all aspects of their lives. We can add many specific steps, including the following which were suggested by experienced parents.

– Use the real words. Teach children the proper names for body parts — vagina, vulva, penis, nipples, anus and so on. This gives them more ability to talk about their body and takes away needless mystery.

– Talk the language of feelings. Help children to identify and be able to express what they are feeling — happy, sad, scared, unhappy, angry and so on. They will be better able to talk to you about their feelings when they do have a concern.

– Remove fear from your discipline. Use effective discipline which does not involve fear. Don’t use physical or verbal threats or abuse; listen to their side in a dispute. This teaches them that they can come to you, even if they feel guilty, and you will listen and not hurt them.

– Teach them the ‘stop’ rule. In games you play with them and they play with each other, have a rule that anyone can say ‘stop’ and be respected. Ensure that all players obey that rule. This is very important in letting children know they will be respected and can have time out. (It is also useful for adults who are arguing.) Part two of this rule is that, if they say ‘stop’ and the other person does not comply, they must move away from the game and get help from someone older, if necessary.

– Teach and value privacy. Gradually introduce the idea of privacy. Point out that adults don’t undress with others around, nor do they touch their genitals in public. Explain that you want them to follow these conventions, too.

– Don’t sexualise your children. It is best for young children not to witness sex, even on TV. Dress children age-appropriately. Don’t joke about young children having ‘girlfriends’ and ‘boyfriends’.

– Abolish secrets. Don’t use or have secrets as part of your family life. Children should not be expected to keep things to themselves. Children who are told or threatened by someone that they must ‘keep a secret’ will know this is wrong and that their parents expect them to tell.

– At any age, children should only stay the night where you know all of the family well and when it is clear that no other visitors will be sleeping-over.

– Trust your intuition. Act on your feelings. Often, the only warning of child abuse is an intuition you have about a person or situation, that ‘something isn’t right’. Even if you have no facts to support you, it’s okay to say ‘no’ to an invitation or situation you don’t feel 100 per cent comfortable about.

– Don’t push children to be intimate — encourage them to kiss or hug only those people you would kiss or hug.

– Go with them into public toilets. We need better and more single-entry toilets, or parent/child toilets, in public places.

– Don’t touch their genitals after nappy age. From about the time children are out of nappies (three to four years), no one but themselves should specifically touch their genitals, unless for a medical examination. They can learn to wash and care for their own penis or vagina and, if they have a problem, it is best if they show you, and for them to do the touching, rather than you.

– Be careful with carers. Have very high standards about who cares for your children. Make a practice of dropping in unannounced from time to time, even (especially) when this is discouraged.

– Start with yourself and your partner. Adults need contact with and affection from other adults. This saves you from using your children as your sole source.