Preventing Sexual Abuse

Last week I was privileged to attend a lecture on the subject of preventing sexual abuse among children by Dr. D. Pelcovitz, professor of education and psychology at Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education in New York.

There is a theory among overprotective parents that the ideal way of ensuring our children’s safety is to watch them vigilantly at every moment. However, not only is it impossible to constantly keep our children in our site, it is educationally an incorrect method of raising children. Teens and school-age children require a certain amount of privacy and freedom in order to properly mature and learn responsibility.

Many parents are afraid of talking to children about issues of abuse, marriage, and the facts of life. However, just like giving a child a bitter-tasting yet necessary medication, parents must not abdicate their responsibility and avoid discussions which may be uncomfortable. Done correctly, speaking to children about intimate topics will create a warm and loving bond.

We all talk to our children about safety with regard to crossing the street. No parent is remiss in talking to their children about food, water, and fire safety. Discussions about personal safety ought to be approached with the same vibe. Just as you look both ways prior to crossing the street and never go swimming without a lifeguard, so too, you must know that nobody has permission to touch your private parts.

Teach wariness without fear: Just as a child is not anxious about looking left and right before crossing the street, there is no need to inject undue tension into the discussion.

It must be stressed that molesters are often people very close to the child, and it is worthwhile adding that “Nobody has permission to touch the areas covered by your bathing suit” include aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, and trusted babysitters. Only a doctor, under the auspices of a parent, can touch private areas.

Give examples of types of touches, and allow your child to elaborate about how those touches make him feel: Chills, hugs, massages, and holding hands.

Role playing is a valuable tool to aid children in the ability to say “No”.

The majority of child molesters are ‘shopping around’ for vulnerable victims and a firm “NO” will generally cause the perpetuator to search elsewhere for another child.

Role-playing and discussions need not be limited to discussions of a child’s private parts, as most abusers do not begin by touching a child’s genitals.

“Tommy, what would you do if Uncle Al tickles you too much and you want him to stop?” – would be a simple opening to begin this discussion.

A child must be secure in the knowledge that his body belongs to him alone, and he has the right to say “no” to any kind of touch that makes him feel uncomfortable, whether it is an aunt’s over-exuberant kisses, an uncle’s incessant tickles, or a neighbor’s suffocating hugs.

“STOP! I don’t like that” is the response that children must know they are always allowed to proclaim.

If the perpetrator of the unwanted touch does not stop, the child should be taught to continue screaming until help arrives. This golden nugget has saved many children from abuse- generally because they had parents that took the time to teach them this concept.

Very often abuse occurs in familiar territory: an unused classroom, the laundry room in the basement, or a deserted area of a playground. Screaming for help will hopefully alert someone within a short period of time.

The concept that ‘my body belongs to me’ is likely to be a novel one for preschoolers who view adults (and ten-year-olds!) as the rulers of their universe. “Might makes right” is what youngsters generally think, and if a grown-up is doing something, then it must be correct.

In summary, catch a teachable moment where you can talk to your children, and thus dramatically increase their chances of not becoming a victim. Speaking about hypothetical situations builds up children’s muscles in order for them to stand up for themselves..

Here are just a few conversation starters:

“What would you do if the babysitter told you that her boyfriend is coming over, but it is a secret and you can’t tell Mom and Dad?”

“Let’s say a teacher gives you a hug that feels yucky, what would you do?”

“What if someone tells you a secret and says that he would hurt you if you tell anyone about it? Would you tell Mom or Dad?”

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  1. What a timely article!

    My son is nearly 4, and I’ve been thinking that we need to address these issues. I bought a book to read with Harrison called “It’s My Body”. The role-playing idea is something I wouldn’t have thought of- great idea to get the conversation going.

    Thank you,

    Sheryl, mom to Harrison (3) and Dylan (1)

  2. I just recently put that book on my amazon list for purchase as well! Perfect timing for this email and it is definitely a hugely important topic to discuss so there is open communication and clarity around the issue!! Thank you for sending this out! B

  3. This is sooo helpful – thank you Ellen! It is all to easy to go through life afraid of bad things and feeling powerless to control them. We can choose to be overprotective and afraid or confident, powerful and trusting. This trust includes trusting our children to make wises choices with the knowledge and tools that we give them. I think this applies to drugs and all the other hurtful behavior our children might be tempted to try. My kids are young and I am really striving to be open and loving as we teach and model this confidence and ability to respond wisely to life challenges. My 6 year old daughter already loves to remind me “mommy there is no such thing as bad people, just bad choices.” She sees life as good, full and beautiful but she is aware that some people make bad choices that hurt themselves. This is a good place to come from and for me to keep talking to her about the issue you address her. May all of our children be kept safe and grow into their full shining potential!

  4. My soon to be ex-husband led two very different lives. We spoke to our children about their body, there ability to say no and that they should never have secrets with a grown-up. My husband was more of a hover parent than I – always concerned with our children’s safety. Imagine my shock when learning that my husband who I thought was a wonderful father had our 10-year old son keeping secrets since age 6. My husband was found to be in possession of child porn at work and was in my estimation grooming our child for sexual abuse. I could have never known…I’m writing this because my life and my children’s lives have been virtually destroyed by him. My 10-year old said that he knew he wasn’t to have secrets with a grown-up, but this was his dad. My child was such a happy go lucky child – the physical abuse never showed on the outside. It was only after his father was inprisoned that he felt safe telling his therapist about the secrets. My son is having great difficulty with the fact that he should have said something to me. He did cry out for help once – telling me that his dad had hit him once and it really hurt. I discussed it with my husband who dismissed it as a light slap and how sorry he was and it would never happen again.(my son did not tell me that his dad had told him not to tell) My husband then went to my child and told him how wrong he was to tell me and that he didn’t even want to know what was going to happen to him if he told again. Even after reading this article you can see that the angle is aunt, uncle, close family friend as possibly being a perpetrator…when in fact it can be a parent. I wish that I would have questioned my son more, especially when he initially came to me. He said that he gave a little information to see how I would handle it. Sadly, he found out right away from his father that he better not break confidence again or there would be stiff consequences. I could have never guessed that he was being physically abused or that my husband was into child porn. My husband was also allowing my son to watch extremely innapropriate TV programs and I now have learned he allowed my son to watch a soft porn video as well as R rated movies when I was not home. He was a business owner, well respected in the community and involved in cub scouts, baseball and teaching Sunday School. Maybe someone out there will read this and it will save them from the pain and despair that my family has suffered. When you have that talk about no secrets, make sure you tell your child that means with parents, too. My husband was so respected in the community that he actually GOT OFF on the initial charge of possession of child porn. I believed that the materials were planted on him like he said. Two months later he sexually assaulted a 10-year old boy in front of my son. My son was interviewed by Child Protective Services when the porn was found and he effectively lied to them and told me that ‘he knew what dad would want him to say.’ My son was an all A student, active in baseball, soccer, basketball, cub scouts, student council, Sunday school and took piano lessons. We were living in a $500,000 home and had by all accounts a perfect life. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.

  5. My husband is a tiger cub scout leader and it is requirement for parents to talk to the tigers (1st graders) about this topic as part of getting one of their badges. He soooooooooo hated to do it, but I’m so glad that this kind of “forced” us into it, because my son DID need to know what to do and it was all about role playing to teach the concept, too. It was just one of those disheartening things that we really NEEDED to discuss, yet didn’t want to. Thanks for the reminder that we did the right thing! 🙂

  6. Another great way of helping us parents deal with an uncomfortable topic, Ellen. Thanks also to the mom who shared her extremely painful story. I personally was able to rebuff inappropriate advances from a few different sources when I was growing up, thanks to God’s grace and guidance. I was an early reader and was able to educate myself. Unfortunately, most children can’t and need all the support from normal adults that they can get. The more people talk about these types of situations in a nonconfrontational manner, the more progress we will make. I have three children of my own now and I hope I am building enough trust with all of them so that they never have to experience this or any other kind of abuse.

  7. I would go a step further and be very clear about the doctor visits. My boyfriend was sexually abused by a male “nurse” (I use quotations because recently we’ve learned this man is not a licensed nurse) at the age of 12. He is now 39 and struggles with this everyday. First the initial shame and fear, now the anger and desire for revenge. I allow a certain amount of privacy with regard to doc visits (my son is 13) but I always go into the room initially. With my nine year old daughter I never leave the room and probably won’t until she gets her first pelvic exam. No profession is immune to these perverts.

  8. Peg Coolong says:

    Am a retired teacher, Mom, Gram, Great-gram and feel the most careful parent could still be in trouble here without due care in observing, teaching, listening. No parent should blame themselves for adults lying, cheating, behaving in abusive ways. Key is listening, feelings, {vibes, if you will,) and getting help as soon as possible. These abusers are not capable of reforming, much as some “therapists” believe.

  9. Like Jamie, I too found out that my father had been molesting my 3 daughters after years of being open with talking about these situations. What made the difference was the fact that it was grandpa and they feared that they would be responsible for the family falling apart. They knew that I would immediately do something about it so they each kept the secret. They never told each other and they each thought that they were the only one and they were afraid to be blamed for what would eventually happen to the entire family. How do you prevent that kind of thinking in a child? It wasn’t until my father did something again to my sleeping 20yr old that she finally told me (prompted by her best friend). That made my 19 yr old break into tears and tell me that she was going to tell me after her grandpa died. I thought I had done all of the conversations needed also. They each told me that had it been anyone else, they would have told me but since it was that close of a relative, they were afraid. I can understand what Jamie’s son was going through since his father was the molestor. How do we get through to children that it’s still best to tell even when it’s a father or grandpa?

  10. Just a note to the woman who shared her story about her husband. THANK YOU for sharing that. I hope that you and your son will be able to find healing and wholeness again.

    I do believe that your story needs to be heard and I would encourage you to be open to opportunities to do so as it becomes possible emotionally if it would not be detrimental to your son. Bon courage!

  11. Thank you for this article Ellen and for all the others who have shared their experiences.
    I’m going to buy the book “It’s My Body” today so my Husband and I can read this with our 4 yr old daugher.

  12. This is one of the most IMPORTANT topics that you can cover with your kids. You can never stress enough to a child that their body belongs to them and God – ONLY!!! My father was sent to prison two years ago after we found out that he had been molesting my young daughters.

    I have four children (1 son, 3 daughters) and I had always been so cautious about who kept my kids, etc. Never in a million years would I have guessed that my own father was molesting my precious babies. I am still very angry and working through a lot of my own junk now.

    The one thing that angers me most is although he was sent to prison, which he deserves. My children, myself, and the rest of our family must move on and deal with horrible reality.

  13. Thanks for an excellent article on something I, as a parent educator have been teaching for years. The best way to protect our children from any kind of abuse is to let them know from a very early age that their bodies belong to themselves and NO ONE – NOT EVEN A PARENT has the right to do anything to their bodies against their will. So the only thing I would add is that parents should model this for their children by always respecting and following the rule themselves.

    This means parents will have to work for a child’s consent for medical procedures, etc. but it is something that is well worth working for. It also means the end of all physical forms of punishment – especially spanking which is usually done in that area that is covered by a bathing suit!

    My son and his wife ask permission of their toddler before wiping her nose, changing her diaper or anything else of a physical nature. She is usually very cooperative and often wants to do it herself – but it gets done. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has long been an advocate of getting children’s permission to give shots or perform any other medical procedure and children’s hospitals have found that empowering children to be in charge of their medical needs as much as possible contributes to a more rapid recovery. The only time it should ever be necessary to overpower a child would be in a serious medical emergency situation.

    A child should always feel free to speak up whenever anyone – even a parent violates the integrity of their bodies. I did not know enough at the time to teach this to my own children and I am very grateful that I finally was able to inspire them to teach it to my grandchildren! I seriously doubt that anyone would ever even try to abuse them and they are also wonderful, helpful and kind kids who would never be abusive to anyone else!

    We could also use the same approach when dealing with a child’s emotional well-being. No one, not even a parent, has the right to violate a child’s self esteem. If children grow up with the sense that they really do belong to themselves they will feel freer to take better care of themselves in all respects.

  14. Jaime and Janet,

    I am so sorry to hear what you and your kids hadto go through.

    It makes my heart bleed every time when I read or hear about violence in any type of way, let alone the things that some people are capable of doing to children.

    I feel that the problem is within humanity itself for that the many violent movies, news and media are promoting violence and fail to display loving gestures to interact with each other. Most men in our society feel that woman are ‘too sensitive’ and are not able to ‘tough it up’ etc….. which in my opinion is a surplus in male energy which has consumed sub-pressed and being able to get away with it for eons, now.

    Look at humanities history! Wars all over for thousands of years, man controlling man-kind and of course it all is under the cover of fear and keeping things secret. It starts with politics, religious dogmas that condemn the human body as something despicable, mentors and teachers, bosses and employees etc where a hierarchy is established where one human being exerts control over others. Physical power is the way to go, so men think and that mental and intuitive female power is weak.

    Humanity in its entirety finds excuses to ‘bend the moral codes’ and the simple 10 Commandments of God’s Laws to their personal liking and makes a whole drama about how which and what is to be understood instead of keeping it simple and to obey just as it has been written.
    The Ego Mind has complicated the Essence of Goodness, the Love and the Light that every human being is born with so much that many things are out of order and now we are sitting here not understanding where all this comes from.

    The human body in its essence isn’t the bad thing, so to speak including its private parts, it’s what man-kind has allowed to be the public belief about it. If people would honor their private parts in the first place just like they are honoring their arms, hands, legs, feet, face, hair etc…. and not create such a secrecy about it (especially some religions) there would not be any public interest to pervert these things, or has anyone ever seen an adult movie about an arm, or a leg?

    Every body part has its appropriate function and its divine purpose, so what’s all this with the re-productional body parts? If a mother would not nourish her child through breast-feeding the child could not survive, at least not before they had formula. I choose breast-milk over any formula because no chemical substance can be as good of a quality as what has been set forth by God, which is the mother-milk itself. It is those woman-hating men that pervert everything, not being willing to respect a woman on a level of equal partnership and love instead of falling pray to the lower vibrational aspects of wanting to consume someone else body without engaging in the love through the mind and spirit as well. That’s whats wrong with it, not the physical connection par-se.

    I feel that children are to understand open-mindly that these private parts are parts of the body just like the other ones, too and that it is just as wrong to twist and break someone’s arm as it is wrong to hurt anyone in each and any way and that there are laws to protect and to prosecute, no matter how physically strong this particular (mostly male) individual appears to be at this point, by using threats via intimidation, coersion and so on. There is always an ‘afterwards’ where this person no longer is around, and even if it means for the child to not go home from school until the issue is resolved, the police is called and the perpetraitor being taken in custody, then this is what it has to be done.
    I am a mother of a 4 year old girl myself and I am paying attention to her way of communicating and being very closely. If she should ever come to me and say something just slightly negative in this sense, I am on high alert to investigate and to ask her more questions, for sure.

    I like the suggestion of the ‘game play’, dear Ellen. It is wonderful and I will also take this into consideration. I think it is too early for her to even be involved with this type of discussion, because I am always around her and for her to even open her mind to such negative possibilities I want her to be a little older. I was thinking to speak to her right before she goes to school, or when time comes when she is not around me all day anymore. The fear of being attacked can just cause such an event, when considering the Law of Attraction, as we create what our mind occupies itself mostly with. So, even in a playful manner I’d be very careful how I would bring this across.

    Also about family disruption. Our children are to understand that the family is already disrupted once they are the ones being hurt, because they are a part of the family, too…… so in any case encourage your children to speak up, not with underlying fear in their minds, or to see what mommy would say, or how she’d react, because she has to understand and hear the full truth and not a half truth spoken with fear in order to act and respond in order to protect her child.

    Of course there are abusive woman out there as well, and it isn’t done by just simply pin pointing all of it unto the male gender, yet it is more common, because of the ‘more of testosterone’ in a man’s system that they are more prone and ready to execute violent behavior. Not to put down men, it is simply a biological fact.

    To both of you, Jaime and Janet,
    and all other parents that had bad experiences with their kids in this sense or themselves, please know that there are good people out there that do care and are ready and willing to help, so it is never too late to take action to establish your child’s or your own dignity by talking openly about it and to find ways to heal via possibly a self-help group, a Pediatrician, Psycho-Therapist, Spiritual Healer or any other means that suits you best to overcome and to release the pain.

    Write a journal or a book while understanding once you write it all down you are taking it off your chest and out of your system, and you have placed it on paper to be done-away with the pain forever!!! Know this please!
    Take the book, the journal, the script (do not read over it ‘over and over’ again, because you wrote this to release the information so you don’t want to restore it by reading it again – this is very important), then make a bonfire and burn it, knowing that with each moment the paper is burning smaller and smaller that the Universe is taking care of you and your loved ones as you are from now on protected, and that you have released this burden into the Ether for God to take care of it!

    See it fading away and see yourself and your loved ones, your children restored. Breathe deeply and then move on with your life knowing you are safe.

    Love and Light to you all of You,

  15. Thanks so much for reminding us of the importance of good communication with our kids. I have two precious teenagers and we talk all the time. As they are beginning to date and venture out more on their own, I remind they each time they leave the house to be aware of their sourroundings. They may get sick of hearig the same thing over and over but I remind myself everyday that I have been called on by God to be their mother not their friend.

  16. Thanks for the kind words of support regarding my family’s situation. With hindsight being 20/20 I realize now that I was the only parent who continually spoke to our children about honesty and telling the truth. The rule was that if you lied, the discipline would be twice as harsh as if you had told the truth. (I never spanked or hit) One of my favorite sayings to my children is, “the truth will always set you free”. When my son was 5 or 6-years of age he came to me and told me that a few months prior he had eaten a candy bar that he had found in our downstairs refrigerator. He then told me how good it felt to finally tell the truth – it had indeed set him free. He asked if he was going to be punished. I told him no, that carrying this on his conscience for so long was punishment enough and I showered him with praise for telling the truth. So many times when we discuss what his father did to him he remarks about how I have always taught him the value of telling the truth, but even that couldn’t make him tell on his dad because his fear of what his dad would do to him, which included never going fishing or doing anything fun together again, telling Mom lies to get him in trouble, the breaking of favorite toys and the topper – punishment would be so bad he couldn’t even tell him what it was. There is so much more – my husband had my son lie to the police regarding the sexual assault. My son said that even though he was under oath and felt like he was going to throw-up, he told the rehearsed version my husband had drilled him on. I have looked online for support groups for wives/women who have experienced such a family trauma and I have only been able to find support groups for women whose significant others have been “falsely accused” of sexual abuse or “punished too harshly for only kissing a 14-year old girl” and they shouldn’t be on the sex offender registry or laws need to be changed. Does anyone know of any support groups? My children and I are all in therapy as we will probably be for years. The fact that this made the TV News and newspapers has given us little anonymity.

    My children have all grown up with Yello Dyno – and singing songs such as “My Body is Mine”. They are very catchy tunes that teach children personal safety.

  17. My son was cornered in the bathroom at a his swim team pool. He told us about the “groping incident’ that night. It was a bad experience to go through–placing a police report, several parents siding against us, and the parent of the boy getting a lawyer to intimidate us…but we all learned a good lesson from it and and our son is stronger for it.

  18. Your local children’s advocacy center would be a place to find prevention information and also to get help. Most function as nonprofits and could also use all of the community support available. Although not all communities have one, there are advocacy centers nationwide.

  19. My heart goes out to the women who shared the tragic stories about abuse and betrayal from their husband and dads. I also was married to a man for many years before discovering he was living 2 seperate lives- the sucessful corporate man who was active in church, and the sex addict who hooked up with porn and prostitutes regularly. After years of 12 step meetings and therapists, I took my daughters and started over. My daughters initially resented me going back to work and leaving our lovely home for a not so great apartment. Now, many years and tears later, they are glad I did. Any Mom who is struggling with this decision- please get the friend/counseling, emotional, spiritual and financial support you need to protect your children now! Any Mom who has any quiet doubts, or has heard even one suspicious sound, PLEASE secretly put a sound activated digital/tape recorder in the room to check out the situation. Our children need us, to go beyond what is comfortable for us, to truly protect them in this age of pervasive child porn and rampant addiction.

  20. Something that has not yet been posted here is the possibility for the perpetrator to be of the same gender as the victim.

    This may not be as common, yet it is a reality. In some ways this can be even more confusing and difficult for a child to deal with.

    It could even be a fellow classmate in school. The victim is scared to ‘tell’, in fear of everyone in school finding out about the ‘shameful’ story.

    There are so many unfortunate molestation stories. In my opinion, it is something that should be addressed in schools as well.

    Did you know that 3 out of 4 girls are victims of some form of molestation? It is not spoken of enough. It’s a very ‘hush hush’ topic.

    More must be done to stop the sick-minded individuals.

    Any ideas?

  21. As a mom of 6, this whole issue was compelling to me by the time my oldest was about 3 (7 years ago). I came across a book that became just priceless to me as we started getting babysitters, checking out pre- and then elementary schools, having playdates or sleep overs, etc. The book is called “Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)” by Gavin De Becker.

    I confess, that without realizing it, I was a bit neurotic as a new mom, but also just overwhelmed with the enormity of the task I had as one of my children’s key protectors and educators. This book was just a godsend. It helped me get a framework for the whole idea of safety (the sexual stuff-and more-is covered, with really good statistics so it’s clear where to be looking for trouble…and it’s often not where us mom’s think!). There’s just so much practical advice that covers about everything I could think of. And I can’t say how many times I’ve recommended this book/author!

    And I also know it’s important to not over-emphasize a topic. By doing so, we can actually be part of the cause, not the solution. And I love how this book helped me learn where to take responsibility, when to forgive myself and cut myself some slack…and how to look at the world from a realistic, rather than a fear-based position. And THAT is a key thing I want to teach my kids, as well as how to be safe and very confident in their worlds.

    Thanks everyone for your honestly and all you’ve shared!
    Hope this assists someone…


  22. I was always waiting for my daughter to ask the me the questions about the birds and the bees/ sex. I tried not to force the subject and honestly maybe was uncomforatable talking to her about it. When she was ten, I discovered my mother’s boyfriend, certainly a grandfather figure in my daughter’s / family’s eyes was molesting her, masterbating in front of her and showing her pornography in a garage of my mother’s house. I deeply regret not having shared more with her at a younger age. This preditor got to her at the age of 8 and used the secret line which she believed. He is in jail now for raping two young girls that were neighbors. A deep hurt is that my mom sticks by his side to this day. She some how believes he is a changed man. I’ve had to drop all contact with her for the sake of protecting my children and to help keep me sane. I have trouble stomaching her knowing the private details of my family and then sharing them with her boyfriend who has betrayed us. My daughter seems to be doing well. She never mentions the abuse or my mom or the boyfriend. These are deep wounds she seems to keep to herself and we respect her private pain. I don’t hold back now talking to my other children. Thank you Ellen for bring up this subject. It is so very important.

  23. thanks a lot

  24. I have a very close friend who is now an older adult and she recently told me that when she was a child her older brother had sexually assaulted her regularly and when her mother found out she did nothing about it. I can see the pain of this experience in my friend. She seems to have suffered mentally from this. She is a lovely person and my heart aches for her. I notice that no one is talking about teenage brothers molesting thier younger sisters and it should definitely be discussed with your child also. This is far more prevalent then most would like to believe or even know about. It is almost impossible to control what happens between siblings and this subject must be addressed as well

  25. Thanks for this article. I have small children and worries about mlosetation and abuse. It’s sad that these things happen to the innocent.
    I work in the behavioral health and have seen the lives that have been destroyed by abuse of all kinds.
    I pray for comfort from above to families that have experienced this. God protect us all from this horror.