Keeping Your Child Safe From Abuse During the Holidays And Throughout the Year
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
and see that they get justice.
This will probably be one of the most important, and sensitive, blog posts I will ever write. I understand that talking about childhood abuse, especially sexual abuse, is difficult. It’s uncomfortable. But, it’s incredibly important. Because Abuse happens, whether we want to talk about it or not, it happens.
1/4 girls and 1/6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. That’s a hard fact to comprehend. (“Child Sex Abuse Fact Sheet”).
Keeping Children Safe
Thankfully, parents, adults, and children can take steps to keep children safe. Equally important, adults can give children the tools they need to get help if abuse occurs. Children can be especially vulnerable to abuse during the holiday season when families visit extended relatives and children are often left alone with adults and other children in unfamiliar situations.
I often think of abuse prevention policies like car safety: no matter how many safety precautions you take, you cannot guarantee that you will never be in an accident. However, practicing safe driving by using your blinker, stopping at stop signs, and driving the speed limit will significantly reduce the likelihood of being in an accident. And, if an accident does occur, additional safety measures like wearing your seatbelt and using a booster seat, will help ensure that, although you did get hurt, the injuries are not life threatening. Is this an aboslute garauntee? No. But it gives you your best shot.
Abuse prevention practices are similar.
Like safe driving practices that reduce your chance of being in an accident, taking some of the preventative steps outlined below can significantly reduce the chances of your child being in an unsafe situation.
The steps to “give your child a voice” is like the seatbelt. We wear a seatbelt because we know that although we take steps to drive safely, an accident may still occur from circumstances outside of our control. Similarly, even though you take steps to decrease opportunities for abuse, it may still occur. Therefore, it’s imperative that your children know what abuse is and how to report it so that the abuse stops. Although your child may be hurt, early reporting gives your child the best shot at healing.
In this blog post, I will first share my qualifications, talk about specific steps you can take to keep your children safe, how you can give children a voice to report abuse, and what you should do if abuse occurs.
Am I Qualified to Talk About This?
Each year, the organization I founded, Students Against Sexual Slavery, hosted a “Sexual Assault Awareness Week” at my university. To kick off the week, we placed candles on the school’s quad to represent the 1/3 women and 1/6 men who survive a sexual assault during their lifetime, as applied to my university’s student population. This was from the event in 2015.
Some of you may wonder if I’m even qualified to talk about such a sensitive and important topic, so I think it’s important that I share my experience (if you’re not interested in these, please skip to “Safety Precautions” below).
I have a B.S. in Child & Family Studies and a B.S. in Family & Human Services from John Brown University. During my studies, I focused my research and studies extensively on child abuse and sexual assault, including a year-long research study on sexual assault within Christian Church settings. For this project, I visited 103 churches in 3 states, representing nearly two dozen different Christian denominations. With the approval of an ethics committee and faculty supervision, I surveyed church leaders on their congregation’s child protection policies and sexual abuse reporting practices/how the church responds when someone informs church leaders that they have been sexually abused (children) or assaulted (adults). I also interviewed adults from these churches who identified as survivors of sexual abuse, including now adults survivors of childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual assault. Specifically, I interviewed the survivors regarding how their church responded when it found out they had been abused, and how they wished their church had responded differently. This experience, coupled with extensive research of peer-reviewed articles, gave me incredible insight on why individuals do not report abuse.
In addition to this project, and completing multiple classes related to child abuse and trauma, I also worked as an intern and volunteer advocate for three years at three different child advocacy centers and a rape crisis center, in three states. I assisted with forensic medical examinations of both adults and children and worked with families and survivors immediately after an assault occurred. I also assisted with the organization of multiple community awareness events and training programs for community organizations such as schools and police departments.
I also founded the organization, Students Against Sex Slavery, which was dedicated to raising awareness about campus sexual assault and human sex trafficking in Arkansas.
With all of that said, let’s get to the point of my post: keeping children safe.
In addition to the steps outlined in the next section, there are specific steps you can take (especially during the holiday season) to minimize situations where your child is at risk for abuse.
- Abuse Occurs By Relatives and Friends You Trust.
90% of children are abused by someone they know and trust (“Child Sexual Abuse Statistics”). They are not abused by some creepy guy driving around in an old minivan offering free candy, but by family members and friends they trust and are often trusted by their parents. This is uncomfortable to think about, but is important when taking the following steps to protect your children:
- Do not leave your child alone with a grown-up or in an isolated place. Especially at holiday parties, make it clear that your child is to stay in open areas with people around. If your child goes into a playroom, for example, make sure that the door stays open at all times and that you frequently peek in.
- Never, under any circumstances, force your child to hug or kiss someone they don’t want to, or emotionally manipulate them to do so. I get it. We all have an Aunt Dorothy that gives tight hugs and kisses that smell bad, but nevertheless gets upset if your child does not hug her. But, never force your child to touch someone (especially a relative) that they don’t want to. Not only should you never physically force a child to hug someone, but do not say things like, “Come on, Aunt Dorothy would really appreciate it if you hugged her” or “You can play with your friends only if you hug Aunt Dorothy.” To be frank, you do not know if anything has occurred between your child and that relative. Not only that, but children need to learn from a young age that they do not need to touch adults they feel uncomfortable with (it is not uncommon for abusers to tell children that they would engage in sexual acts “if you really loved me.”…the difference between a hug and sexual act may seem quite different to as adults, but children must learn that they do not need to do something physical that they don’t want to do to show an adult that they love them).
- Adults spend time with other adults, not children.
An adult should not seek to spend excessive time with your child, especially alone. Yes, it is perfectly okay for Grandpa to take your child fishing every week. But, if you notice an adult seeks to spend all of their time with children, is buying your child a lot of gifts (grooming) or seeks to spend time alone with your child, this must be a red flag. 80% of child abuse occurs in situations where one adult is alone with one child (“Child Sex Abuse Statistics”). Make sure to ask your child how they feel about the adult in question and make sure that these visits occur in public places or with other people present.
2. Children Abuse Children
As many as 40% of children are abused by older children (“Child Sexual Abuse Statistics”).
- At holiday parties (and in general) make sure that your child does not play alone in an isolated area with other children. Always make sure that there is a group of children, or that the children are in an open area with other people. If the children are playing in a room, check in often. If your child tells you that they don’t like playing with a certain child, or that a child makes them feel unsafe, respect that.
3. Be alert
Be sure to notice any changes in your child. Bedwetting (when the child did not wet the bed before), reverting to younger child behavior, overall changes in behavior, an embarrassment about their body, physical marks that can’t be explained, or knowledge of sex beyond their age level, may be signs that your child is being abused.
4. Create a safety word for your child.
Create a safety word for your child that, whenever they feel unsafe, they can come to you, say that word, and you leave with them right away. No questions asked.
Family and Acquaintance Sex Abusers Look for Specific Characteristics in Potential Victims
Researchers have identified common characteristics in children who were abused by a relative or a family friend. These characteristics include children who are: timid, quiet, lonely and trustworthy (“Child Sex Abuse Statistics”).
Abusers don’t want to get caught, so they seek victims that won’t tell. Abusers may believe that children who are naturally quiet or timid will not stand up for themselves and will not tell. Therefore, giving your child a voice, as outlined below, is incredibly important.
Similarly, children who are lonely may not have an adult that will notice changes in their behavior.
Lastly, abusers also seek loyal children. In these situations, an abuser will spend a lot of time “grooming” their victim, and even the child’s family. They will buy the child gifts or do special treats. They may also practice telling the child secrets to see if the child will keep the secret, and then after they know the child will not tell, ease into the abuse. It will often start small, with a slight touch to see if the child will say anything. If not, the abuse will increase, and the abuser will say things like, “If you really loved me you’ll do this.” Additionally, the abuser will build a trusting relationship with the family, so that if the child does say anything to the parents, the parents will not believe the child.
Research Institutions Where Your Child Will Be Alone with Adults
I have worked for many years with the children’s ministry organization, Child Evangelism Fellowship, both in their after-school clubs and overnight camps. I was incredibly impressed, and thankful, for their strict child safety standards, some mentioned below. If your child will be participating in after-school activities, children’s religious programs, or overnight camp, research that organization’s policies and make sure they’re similar.
- First, make sure that the organization recognizes that abusers seek organizations where they will have easy access to children, such as religious organizations (where people are often trusting) and overnight camp settings (where children will be spending a lot of time with a few adults). Make sure the organization first recognizes that all organizations, but especially those that work with children, are attractive to abusers and must take extra steps to be safe.
- Second, make sure all staff, including volunteers, undergo extensive background checks. Not only criminal but also personal. Are references required? Are references actually called? Does the organization look for “subtle” abuse red flags such as moving frequently (abusers move to keep the abuse secret) or working with many children’s organizations over a short period of time?
- Third, ask about the organization’s has child abuse prevention procedures. What steps does the organization take to make sure that situations that put children at risk (like being alone with an adult or another child) are avoided? For example, at CEF, a child must always be in a group of three. Two children can never be alone together and an adult may never be alone with a child under any circumstance. Even when a child wakes a counselor in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, that counselor must wait outside of the bathroom building while the child goes inside (bathrooms are not in cabins). Also, if a child forgets something in the cabin, the counselor must take another child back to the cabin with them. CEF also recognizes that abuse occurs among children, and children are never allowed to be alone together.
- Furthermore, Make sure that the staff are trained in these procedures, and ask how the organization ensures staff is following these protocols. Again, with CEF, the leadership staff is constantly walking around the camp. For example, when I was Dean of Women (the leadership member in charge of all female counseling staff) I would visit activities and walk into cabins unannounced. This ensured that (for the most part) if any counselor was struggling to follow the above-mentioned safety procedures it would be quickly spotted.
- Lastly, ask how the organization reports abuse and what they do after abuse is reported. Do they know they must report externally as well as internally? What happens when a report is made against a staff member (is the staff member immediately removed from all child-related activities until accusations are verified or dismissed?) It is not enough to have safety procedures in place, but that there must also be clear guidelines on how to report any potential sexual abuse.
Give Your Child A Voice
It’s equally important for you to give your child a voice, so that, if abuse does occur, they can report.
- A Child’s Body is Their Body.
Make it very clear to your child that their body is theirs, and theirs alone. No one can touch them without their permission, including parents.* Children need to know that it is okay to say no to being touched and that loving adults will respect that decision.
2. Safe Touches v. Unsafe Touches / “Off Limit” Zones
From a young age, children need to know that some touches are “safe” and other touches are “unsafe.” This is the easiest way to talk to your child at an age-appropriate level about touches. Give your child examples. A safe touch includes things like a high five, mommy brushing your hair, or a hug that does not hurt and you don’t fee weird giving. In contrast, an unsafe touch is a touch that hurts*, or a touch someone tells you not to tell anyone about. A good rule of thumb for a child is that a safe touch would be any touch you could tell a non-family member about.
In my family, and when I am in settings where I will be working with children for a long period of time (especially in an overnight setting), the conversation often goes like this, and I will tell the child:
Your body is your body. No one can touch you without permission. When someone touches you it should not hurt. No one should ever touch you in the area covered by your bathing suit. If mommy, daddy, or a doctor (or another safe adult that you trust) needs to help you change or go to the bathroom or bathtime, they should never kiss you in an area covered by your bathing suit or play games with that area of your body. Never, ever, under any circumstance should someone ask you to touch them on an area covered by their bathing suit or show you the parts of their body covered by their bathing suit. An adult should also never ask you to keep a secret. If someone does this, tell a safe adult, right away, and you will never be in trouble.*
*Spanking is legal in every state. Although the definition of “spanking” and what is allowed does vary based on state law. This post is not about whether spanking is good or bad. I am not endorsing or condemning any discipline method in this post. However, if your family does choose to spank, implementing these safety rules may be confusing and difficult for children.
3. Have Five Safe Adults
Parents are responsible for producing 75% of child pornography (“Child Sexual Abuse Statistics”). That means children forced to participate in porn films were forced to do so by their own parents. Therefore, as uncomfortable as it may be, we need to recognize that people we trust, including our spouse, could harm a child. Therefore, it’s incredibly important that children know that mommy and daddy have rules. Your children must know that if mommy or daddy makes them feel unsafe they need to tell someone.* Therefore, it’s important that your children have safe adults. I help the children I work with identify five adults (one for each finger) that they can talk to whenever they feel unsafe. These adults must be people that you know and trust. Before your child identifies this person as one of “their five” talk to this adult, and tell them that is their responsibility to (please note that this person must be someone the child trusts and would want to talk to, not just someone you trust):
1) believe your child, no matter what;
2) keep what your child tells them confidential (this is the person your child goes to because they feel unsafe talking to you…and that’s okay)….if this safe adult must tell you something, make sure that they tell the child they are going to tell you;
3) report any abuse that your child tells them, even if the child names you or your spouse as the abuser.
This is a big responsibility, and not everyone is up for it.
4. No Secrets
An adult should never ask a child to keep a secret, ever. Especially loyal children may feel guilty for breaking a secret. I have worked with multiple children and adults who were abused as children. Many of these individuals did not report their abuse immediately because they didn’t want to break a secret they promised to keep. Therefore, make sure your child knows:
1) An adult should never, under any circumstance, ask your child to keep a secret. Tell your child that if an adult (or any person) asks them to keep a secret, to tell you right away;
2) There is a difference between a secret and a surprise: in a surprise, everyone (except the person being surprised) knows about the surprise. This is unlike a secret, where the person keeping the secret is the only one who knows about it. Also, in a surprise, there is a set and identified time when that surprise will be made known, unlike a secret which is kept indefinitely. Tell your child that if someone tells them something is a surprise, that they can verify this with one of their 5 safe adults. Surprises are happy and are about future events, not events that already occurred.
5. Give Your Child the Words They Need
Talking about sex with kids can be uncomfortable, especially in more conservative environments. All too often, I speak with adults who wrongly believe “talking about sex” with your child means telling your three-year-old everything about sex. No! Absolutely not.
First, I am a firm believer that it is not only appropriate, but best for children, that they do not know everything about sex, but only things things that are presented at an age and developmentally appropriate level (in fact, a child having an advanced knowledge of sexual intercourse and sexual functions is a potential sign of sexual abuse and one of the many ways trained advocates can help confirm that an abuse has occurred….for example, when a trained interviewer speaks with a young child that reported being sexually abused by an adult male, one of the things the interviewer will ask is “did anything change about his body?” An abused child will know that a man’s private parts “change” when touched, while a child who has not been abused will have no idea what the interviewer means…of course, as children have unsupervised access to the internet at younger and younger ages, it is not absolute that children who know these things were in fact abused, but it is something that is looked for).
Giving your child a voice also means giving your child the right words. For example, a child should be able to say “what a doctor would call” their “private parts.” If you want your child to call their vagina or penis a “private part” (that’s a topic for another post) make sure they know that a doctor would call it a vagina or a penis. I have worked on cases where children tried to report abuse, but were unsuccessful because adults had no idea why Johnny was so upset that Uncle Timmy took him fishing and “played with his fishing pole” (what the abuser called his penis). Abusers will often create games and will call these body parts innocent things so that I child will not be understood when he tries to report.
6. No Shame in Sex
As a Christian, I believe that sex is good, and it was created by God as a good thing. Now for me, there are rules about sex, about who should engage in it and when, but the act of sex itself, is not bad. Regardless of your religious beliefs, I am also confident that you have a moral code regarding sex. Talking to your child about sex in a developmentally appropriate way is not disregarding those morals.
Unfortunately, sex is silenced in many homes. It is off limits to talk about. All of the survivors I spoke with during my year-long research study (and many I talk to today) said one of the reasons they didn’t report is because they felt shameful, or “weren’t allowed to talk about that stuff.” Yes, your child should not have a potty mouth. But, at an age-appropriate level, your child must know that there is no shame in talking to you about their bodies or what someone did to them.
7. Foster a Relationship Where Your Child Can Talk to You
This is probably the most important step: your child must know that they can trust you, talk to you about anything and that they will be believed.
1. Make sure your child knows they can talk to you about their body and about sex.
This can be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be. How you react speaks more loudly than what you say. If your child sees you become embarrassed when they ask a question about their body, or you tell them not to ask you questions, or you lie (like you say baby’s come from a stork, and your child later comes out how babies are really born) your child will not be able to trust you if they are ever scared and ashamed about sexual abuse. If your child’s question catches you off guard, or you need a moment, it’s totally okay to tell your child that you will talk to them later about it. Tell them a specific time and then keep your promise! Your child will not forget.
2. Your child needs to be able to trust you.
This means not sharing information they tell you with others, speaking with your child in private if they ask to do so, and telling them that you will tell when you will what they told you with others (including your spouse).
3. Believe Your Child.
Yes, all children can tell creative stories or lie to get out of trouble. However, children cannot lie about something they do not know about. Children do not know about sex unless they are taught, and cannot create situations they have never seen. There is a natural shame around sex that they must overcome to tell you anyways. So, if a child tells you that Uncle Tim forced them to do a sexual act, believe him.
If your child tells you that Cousin Michael touched them, believe them.
4. Do Not Get Mad at Your Child / Make Sure Your Child Knows He Will Not Be In Trouble
Abusers often tell their children, “mommy and daddy will be mad at you if you tell them what we did” or “If you tell mommy or daddy you’ll be in big trouble.” Abusers make the child feel guilty and responsible for the act. And the last thing a child wants is to disappoint his parents! It’s easy for a child to believe they will be in trouble for telling if sex and bodies are “off limits” in your house. For example, if your child has asked you a question about their body or “where babies come from” in the past, and you responded by saying “we don’t talk about that!” your child can reasonably believe that you will be upset/they will be in trouble if they tell you about abuse.
Again, children should not be gross or have a potty mouth. But there is a balance. Make sure you to tell your child, “I will never be mad at you for telling me the truth.” Another good idea is to practice giving your child grace. When you child confesses something they have done wrong, do not yell at them, but love them and tell them, “I’m so happy you told me!” Obviously, like everything in parenting, there has to be a balance in this. But, if children have seen you extend grace, they are more likely to believe you won’t be mad if they tell you they’ve been abused.
Reporting Sexual Abuse
This is probably the most uncomfortable part of this whole blog post so I will start by saying this:
Sexual abuse is a crime, and any investigation and help must be handled by trained, licensed professionals.
- It is not your job, nor are you qualified, to investigate abuse allegations. It is your job to believe the child and keep him safe.
First, I want to clear up a big myth that I encounter a lot, especially in more conservative circles: Social Workers and investigators do not want an abuse report to be true, they want to uncover the truth. This is a big difference. Too many people, especially in conservative circles, think “the liberal government is out to ruin my family.” This is not true. One of the primary goals of social work programs is to keep genetic families together. Social Works and “the government” are not trying to prove that abuse situations occurred when they did not! In fact, organizations are happy to discover that there was a misunderstanding and that no abuse occurred! Everyone working in child advocacy recognizes that abuse is an incredibly serious allegation. Therefore, one of the best things that can happen is to discover there was a miscommunication and that the child is fine and nothing happened!
Social workers, overall, are caring individuals. They are not on a witch hunt to make parents or adults out to be child abusers when they are not. Are there bad social workers? Yes. And these social workers make the news and make people afraid to report. But, as someone who has worked at 3 child advocacy centers, I can say with complete confidence that it is our not our goal to “prove” abuse happened when it didn’t or frame adults as abusers who did not abuse.
Second, you are ill-equipped to investigate abuse. Child abuse investigators have extensive training in how to identify signs of abuse and ask non-leading questions. If a child tells you an abuse occurred, first make sure they are safe. Then call the police or the reporting hotline below. DO NOT ask your child a lot of details (see point below) and DO NOT contact the abuser. This gives the abuser potential time to flee or craft a story.
Children’s memories are sensitive!!! I cannot stress this enough! If you ask them questions like “Did Uncle Tim touch your private spot?” they could eventually believe this event occurred when it did not. I have seen this multiple times, usually during custody battles, where Part A convinces the child that Part B abused them.
Also, children want to please their parents! If they see that you want them to say something happened, or want them to say did not happen, they could change their memories or stories. Thankfully, due to the interview techniques of child investigators, they can ask non-leading questions that help uncover what really happened. Therefore, leave the questioning up to trained child interviewers.
On that note: if your child is going to be interviewed, make sure they are being interviewed by a trained and licensed Child Forensic Examiner, or whatever your state calls this individual. These individuals are trained specifically to ask non-leading, developmentally appropriate questions to children. Adult investigators, or even worse, police, are not qualified to ask these questions! Tell whomever you are working with that your child must talk to a Child Forensic Examiner or similar professional.
2. “I won’t do it again” is not an acceptable answer.
It’s scary to admit that someone you love and trust could harm your child. Sexual abusers need help. There is no “stereotypical” sex abuser. Situational abusers abuse during highly stressful situations, while some people abuse to show dominance and power, while others abuse because they are attracted to children (“Child Sexual Abuse Statistics”). Regardless of the reason, these individuals need professional help. Although an apology may be an important part of the healing process, it alone does not correct the situations nor will it make your child safe.
70% of abusers have between 1 and 9 victims, while 30% of abusers have more than 10 (“Child Sexual Abuse Statistics). If someone abuses a child once, they will abuse again. Reach out, get help. Not only for your child’s sake but also to help the abuser. If you love the abuser, the best thing you can do is report and get them help.
3. You Need to Report Suspected Abuse
Again, this can be scary. But Child Advocacy Centers are full of caring, trained individuals who want to help your child. Failing to report even suspected abuse in some states is a crime. Not only that, but your child needs professional help to heal.
4. Reporting Internally is Not Enough
Many institutions have their own “reporting policies.” However, in addition to reporting internally, abuse must also be reported externally:
If you suspect a child is or has been sexually abused, you can anonymously report by calling: 1-800-422-4453.
If you are an adult surivor of childhood sexual abuse or rape, proffessional help is availible 24/7 by calling RAINN 1-800-656-4673
Keeping children safe is everyone’s responsibility. My responsibility and your responsibility. There is nothing we can do, as professionals and parents, to 100% prevent abuse. However, we can take steps to minimize opportunities for abuse to occur and give children a voice to report abuse if it does happen.
Let’s keep children safe!
“Child Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet”
“Child Sexual Abuse Statistics”