As a parent, I realize the idea of your child being sexually abused is intensely painful. The worst thing a parent can imagine is someone hurting their child.

However, as a licensed counselor, I have also spent thousands of hours working with survivors of sexual violence. From that time, I have learned that having the appropriate knowledge, tools, and resources can make all the difference in both preventing sexual violence from occurring and reducing trauma from sexual violence when it has already happened.

Parents can be some of the most formidable obstacles to a sexual predator finding an opportunity to abuse. Additionally, their support can speed the recovery of a child who has been through sexual abuse, and enable that child to regain peace once again.

The following guidelines (I call them the Safety Principles) will help you create an environment of prevention to protect your children as much as possible. These principles also help to create a safe environment for children if they need to disclose sexual assault, so that you as the parent can help lessen their trauma.

Safe community

The first safety principle is to create a safer community for your children. Identify the major organizations (your homeschool co-op, your church, sports teams, etc.) that form your family’s community. Then check those organizations for vulnerabilities that perpetrators can use to exploit potential victims.

  • Are background checks required on anyone who works regularly with children?
  • Are supervision and accountability policies in place for those who care for or teach children? One example is the rule of two, which makes it harder for a predator to isolate a potential victim.
  • Are measures in place to ensure that only authorized individuals retrieve your child from nurseries and classrooms?
  • Do staff and volunteers receive training in sexual abuse awareness and prevention?

Part of creating a safe community for your child is being aware of risks from individual people:

  • Review warning signs of grooming behavior by perpetrators, so that you can intervene early if necessary.
  • Check yourself often for authority bias (the belief that a person with authority is more likely to be in the right). People in authority are equally as capable of abusing a child as anyone else, whether they are doctors, pastors, teachers, or others who hold respected positions.

Safe communication

The second principle is to create safe communication practices on the topics of sex and abuse. When children or adolescents are taught that they get a say in what happens to their own bodies, they better understand how to say “No!” when someone violates their boundaries. And when kids know that they will be believed and supported, they will feel safer in coming to you for help.

Here’s what you can do to create safe communication habits:

  • Teach your children and teens about consent. Consent is the idea that a person’s body belongs to them, and they have the right to decide who touches them and when. A great (and non-scary) way to teach this is when your children may not want to be hugged by you or a relative. “That’s OK,” you can say. “Your body belongs to you. When you decide you’d like a hug, I would love to hug you!” This can help them know it’s all right to say no when someone touches their body in a way they don’t like.
  • In addition, tell your kids specifically that it’s OK to say no to adults when there is inappropriate touching. Up until roughly the preteen years, it’s hard for children to understand exceptions to a rule like being obedient to adults. You can help them realize this by role-playing or asking hypothetical questions.
  • Take every outcry of sexual assault seriously. Children rarely make up accounts of sexual abuse, especially when they would not normally have the words to explain the sexual misconduct that happened to them. If a child or teen is telling the truth and is disbelieved, he or she may never work up the courage to share again. That’s why people should take every child’s account of sexual abuse seriously—because it’s not worth the risk to do otherwise.
  • Understand that not every child is capable of communicating about sexual abuse in words. Review the nonverbal warning signs of sexual abuse here.
  • Avoid victim blaming. Nothing excuses abuse or assault. Asking questions like, “What were you wearing?” or “Did you encourage him/her?” brings long-term harm to the survivor, while doing nothing to put the blame where it belongs.
  • Tell your children in advance that you will advocate for them. Your children need to know that they can trust you to support them in these ways. Not only will this help them come to you if abuse happens, but the confidence this gives them could actually prevent them from being manipulated by a predator. Abusers often say, “Your parents will never believe you.” That phrase has no power if a child already knows it to be false!
  • Seek counseling. State-licensed counselors (look for initials like LPC, LMHC, and LCSW) who have been trained to work with sexual abuse survivors are the best fit to help a child or teen heal from sexual trauma.

Safe correction

The third principle is to maintain a safe environment for your children when abuse occurs. This means separating the perpetrator from access to vulnerable individuals and doing whatever you can to prevent him or her from reoffending.

Here are some ways to safely correct your children’s environment:

  • Bring the abuse to the attention of appropriate officials. You do not need proof of the abuse to speak to the authorities about it. To find out where to report child abuse and get answers to common questions about doing so, please visit Darkness to Light or call 1-866-FOR-LIGHT. (In the aftermath of sexual abuse, some parents seek help from a counselor, doctor, or other professional before taking any other steps. Keep in mind that we are required by mandatory reporting laws to notify the authorities if you have not already done so. Whenever I have to make a mandatory report, I try to communicate with the parents the entire way through and make sure they know what to expect.)
  • Be aware that forgiveness is not enough. Sometimes sexual predators will apologize and may even be truly remorseful for their actions. But despite this, they are not capable of stopping their behaviors without serious intervention and accountability. Even if a perpetrator is sorry for their behavior, it is still imperative that a person with a history of sexual abuse should never again be allowed unsupervised around children or teenagers. A predator in recovery is still a predator, and should not be with vulnerable individuals any more than an alcoholic should be offered a drink.

Considering the possibility of sexual abuse happening to someone you love is scary, but doing so is exactly what can help prevent it. While it is impossible to avoid every bad thing that might impact your children’s lives, you can still greatly reduce their chances of being victimized. You can also ensure that you are their safe haven, no matter what.

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