Parents of children who have been victimized by sexual predators tend to describe their family's experience as "unthinkable." But experts in childhood sexual abuse say parents should think about it and talk to their kids about it, because children who know what to look out for are less likely to be victimized.
It is important to educate young children about "good touch and bad touch" and "stranger danger," even though the majority of sexual offenses against children are perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts.
Dr. Leigh Baker, a psychologist in Denver and the author of Protecting Your Children from Sexual Predators (St. Martin's Press), has treated hundreds of abused children and interviewed dozens of sexual offenders. Baker and others say the first line of defense against sexual abuse is a child's sense of self. Parents should help their children develop confidence in themselves and their bodies, starting when they are in the toddler stage, and answer kids' questions about their private parts with anatomically correct answers.
Experts note that focusing on the sexual act is confusing and scary for kids. But when children are at around age 3, parents can talk freely and openly with them about their bodies, explaining, "Your body belongs only to you. It is the one thing you don't have to share with others." Also: "If anyone ever wants to see or touch your private parts, you should tell me right away." Children should also be told that it's fine to say no to anything that makes them uncomfortable, and that includes sitting on Uncle Bob's lap if they don't like it. "If these things are discussed openly at home, then it is much more probable that a child will know when something unusual has happened and report back to parents," Baker says.
Parents should make it clear to their children that "there are no secrets in our family," Baker says. "Pedophiles use secrecy and shame to keep children quiet. Predators are less likely to choose a child for a victim if they know that the child will tell someone." If families establish an open environment of communication in which any questions can be asked and answered without shame or judgment, children will come to parents when things aren't right.
Pedophiles groom their victims by starting benignly, then making them feel special and exclusive, sometimes even using a mother or father's trust to get to a child. Parents should tell their children it's not right for an older person to want to be their special friend with no other grownups around. Parents should also say, "Older people--even teenagers--should not give you special gifts without asking your parents first and should never ask you to keep secrets." Children should be told that if a relationship with an older person they already know changes and that person wants to be alone with them, this is a danger sign.
Finally, children should be told over and over again to follow that feeling they get in their tummy when things just don't seem right. Even if they don't know exactly what is wrong, children, like the rest of us, can sense a dangerous or threatening situation. "Always follow your gut" is a simple and important piece of safety advice that even young children can understand.