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As a parent, there is likely nothing scarier than the thought that your child might be, or has been, abused.

In today’s world, where we’ve finally been able to put a number on approximately how many boys and girls are sexually abused in the US (1 in 4 girls, 1 in 6 boys), the fears that it could happen or that it may have already happened are not to be taken lightly. It is healthy to be aware of the possibility and to take some precautions. However, even though the statistics and the stories are scary, they are not by any means a guarantee that something like this will happen to your child. There are steps you can take to be confident that your child is safe, as well as to learn to recognize some of the signs children often display if something like sexual abuse has happened to them. There are lots of good resources out there that offer practical tips and and advice, but I’ll summarize some of the main points here:

Have the Conversation

Just like it’s a scary topic to think about it, it’s a scary topic to broach. Especially with kids. However, opening up those conversations and being available if your child starts them will let your child know you aren’t afraid to talk about it and (maybe more importantly!) that it’s okay to talk about it, giving them more freedom and confidence in coming to you if something does make them uncomfortable. Make time for them when they come to you, and try to emphasize that it is a space where they can bring up anything.

Use Correct Terms

Researchers and psychologists suggest starting with the basics: teach your child the real names of their body parts (nicknames can make it more confusing- stick with “vagina”, “penis”, “bottom”, and “breasts”, or some close variation), and teach them which parts are private. Talk about what privacy means, and teach them that it is not okay for an adult or another child to touch the private parts of their body.

Talk About the News

As your kids get older, continue to open the conversations. With all of the harassment and abuse cases in the media, you can use those stories as a starting point to check in. Ask your kid if they’ve heard of anything like that happening around them or with their friends.

Regular Check-Ins

Even with these conversational precautions, children often don’t tell. The guilt and shame can be too strong. That’s why it is important to check-in with your child anyway. Do what you can to keep those communication lines open.

Empower Them

Teach children that it is okay to say no! Allow them to have that ownership of their body, and teach them that if they don’t want to “give your great aunt a kiss”, they don’t have to. Explain to them that in addition to saying no, if someone touches them or asks to do something with them that makes them uncomfortable, you always want them to tell you. This teaches them how to create and maintain boundaries, and encourages them to know when their boundaries have been broken.

Give Examples of Inappropriate Conversations

This can get a little tricky, because many perpetrators tell the child not to tell anyone, that it is a secret, or that they will get in trouble if they tell. It is okay to go ahead and tell your child that if anyone says those kinds of things to them or other things that make them feel unsafe or “icky”, that they should always tell you, (even if they promised they wouldn’t), and that they will not get in trouble. It’s often good to even use specific phrases so they see red flags if they hear those phrases repeated.

Get Involved

Pay attention to what your kid is up to. Meet their teachers and coaches and get to know them. Get to know your child’s friends’ parents, and anyone else who might be around or at the house if your children play together. Get references for potential babysitters or even conduct an interview. Pay attention to your instincts. If you have a funny feeling about the pastor, or you’re concerned about the tutor who wants to have one-on-one sessions with your child, trust your gut. Stick to your boundaries, without making it personal, (it’s about your child’s safety, not necessarily about the other person!).

Foster Trust & Openness

These suggestions are certainly not an exhaustive list, and they’re not a guarantee, but they are crucial steps in fostering trust and openness with your child. Empowering your family to stand up for themselves and doing what you can to provide a safe environment for your child are some of the strongest tools you could pass on to your children and even the next generation.

If you’re a parent or guardian, and you can’t find the words to have these important conversations with your children, consider reaching out for assistance from a mental health professional. We are available to help clarify boundaries with families and we are elated that any one person would be interested in growing in areas like these. Parenting is hard enough! An you’re not alone in the worry or the struggle of trying to be the best parent you can be.

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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