By Jill Starishevsky, author of My Body Belongs to Me
As a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City for the past 16 years, one of the most surprising facts I have learned is that 93 percent of all child sexual abuse occurs at the hands of someone known to the child. This means that teaching “stranger danger” alone is no longer enough.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. To help raise awareness, here are three tips to teach children that will help keep them safe from child sexual abuse.
1. No secrets. Period.
Secrets are the most powerful weapon in a child sex offender’s arsenal. If we can take away their secrets, we can take away their power. Encourage your children to tell you about things that happen to them that make them feel scared, sad, or uncomfortable. If children have an open line of communication, they will be more inclined to alert you to something suspicious before it becomes a problem. The way to effectuate this rule is as follows: If someone, even a grandparent, were to say something to your child such as “I’ll get you an ice cream later, but it will be our secret,” firmly but politely say, “We don’t do secrets in our family.” Then say to your child, “Right? We don’t do secrets. We can tell each other everything.”
2. Teach your child the correct terms for their body parts.
This will make them more at ease if they need to tell you about a touch that made them feel uncomfortable. Additionally, if a child uses a word like “cookie” or “peanuts” to describe their private parts, a disclosure might be missed. A busy teacher who hears a child say, “The janitor touched my cookie” might just offer to replace the cookie instead of offering help. Inform children that the parts of their body covered by their bathing suit are private and are for no one else to see or touch (noting the necessary exceptions for bathing, potty issues, and medical treatment in the presence of Mom or Dad).
Keep in mind that children may be confronted with another child who touches their private parts. Explain that private parts are private from everyone, including other children.
3. Let children decide for themselves how they want to express affection.
Children should not be forced to hug or kiss if they are uncomfortable. Even if they are with your favorite aunt, uncle, or cousin, your child should not be required to be demonstrative in their affection. While this may displease you, by letting children decide, you will empower them to say no to inappropriate touching.
Jill Starishevsky is the mother of three daughters and a full-time prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City. Her picture book, My Body Belongs to Me, available in May, provides a roadmap and starting points for parents and educators to communicate with their children about their bodies and the importance of telling someone if they are touched inappropriately.
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