Friday, September 24, 2010

Why we don't keep secrets around our house... A friendly PSA about child sexual abuse

We don't use the word secret with our kids, and I blanche when others try to use it with them  (Please don't use this word with my kids, folks!) 

Why?  Child sexual abuse (heretofore refered to as CSA for expediency).  And before you dismiss me as being paranoid, I'll tell ya, I'm not at all paranoid about this.  What I am is realistic.  Read the statistics and then do the math (and while you're at it, you might as well add on a gazillion % for all the unreported assaults on children).  The basics are this:  1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience an unwanted sexual act prior to the age of 18.  See more detailed stats below:

We're all on-board for teaching our kids about stranger danger.   We all live in fear of the horrific stranger abduction and abuse of our children (the ice-cream man, the dude at the park, etc.).  I don't want to diminish these fears.  These occurences are real and terrible for all involved.  But these occurences are not how the VAST majority of sexual assaults occur on children.

The sad, sick, vomit-inducing truth is that most children are sexually assaulted by someone they know and trust.  Yes.  Family members, parents, step-parents, grandparents, family friends are responsible for 95% of CSA's.  I'm not shitting you here.  Ninety-five %.   People that we, their parents love and trust.  It's a terrible thought, and one we all don't want to think about.  So naturally, we'll all take a minute to comfort ourselves by saying, "Oh, not my boyfriend/girlfriend, not my wife/husband, not my father, not my uncle, not my best friend Jenny.  All the people I know are safe and wonderful and so great with my kids."   I would probably have a heart-attack from shock if my kids ever told me that someone they knew, someone I knew, hurt them in this way.  But being shocked is entirely different than being unprepared.   And I will not let my love of the people in my life blind me from the reality that most child-assaults happen from those who love us, and whom we love.   I volunteer on a sexual assault crisis line and have talked to many a distraught parent, who believed just like we do, that their children were safe with the people they love.  It happens to kids from all walks of life - not just 'those' people (whomever 'those' people are in your mind), so banish this thought, too.

And why the hating on the word secret?  Because child sexual abuse depends upon secrecy.  "It'll be our little secret.";  "We won't tell anyone about this."  "We can never tell because they won't understand."  These are all part and parcel of how abusers maintain their patterns of abuse.  Children keep their secret - out of fear that they won't be believed, out of loyalty to and love for their abusers, out of feelings of guilt and shame, out of fear due to threats. 

So what to do?  Well, for starters - talk about it.  With your family, with other parents, on your facebook, on your twitter, on your blogs, whatever.  Even though it feels yucky and crappy and vomitous - when we talk about it, when we admit to ourselves that these things happen, when we stop treating the subject as taboo - we can be proactive and we can take steps to protect our kids.

1.  Make sure your kids have the language that lets them talk about their body parts.  Kids need to be able to articulate it to you if something is wrong.  Remind them that no one, not even a teacher or close relative, has the right to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.
2.  Try not to use the word secret. 
3.  Let your littles know that people who love them will not ask them to keep secrets.
4.  Differentiate between secrets and surprises - (Secret = never supposed to tell.  Surprise = mommy's birthday present that she'll open next week.  Big difference there.)
5.  Tell your kids often that you will always believe them  (and then practice what you preach).  And let them know that if they don't feel comfortable telling you something has happened (and kids often tell someone other than their parents about CSA), make sure they know that if the first adult they tell doesn't believe them or won't help, to keep telling, for as long as it takes.
6. Make sure they know that no one has the right to ask them to keep a secret from their parents, and that NO older person should ever ask them to keep a special secret, especially one that makes them feel uneasy, yucky or weird.
7.  When they are old enough, be honest and direct with them about sexual abuse and let them know that you will always believe them, no matter who they are disclosing about. 
8.  And probably one of the very, very most important things you can do is to let your kids have bodily integrity.  By this I mean - don't force them to hug you if they don't want to.  Don't make them hug or kiss family members if they don't want to.  Say "would you like to give Auntie Betty a hug goodbye?" instead of "Time to give Auntie Betty a hug goodbye."  Let them make decisions about what feels good or right for their little selves.  They'll let you know if it feels right at any given moment or not.  And don't allow people to guilt your kids into physical affection either: (as in, "Oh, I'll be so sad if I can't have a hug goodbye."  We don't want our kids to learn to give physical affection (however innocuous) in order to make someone else happy.  Yuck-o-rama.

*feel free to add any steps you've taken with your kids in the comments*

As parents, we can't always stop bad things from happening to our kids.  What we can do, is arm them with the best possible information and skills to help them avoid bad things, and let them know that if bad stuff does happen, they can tell us anything, we will believe them, and we will stop it.  Period. 

For more info on warning signs, where to get help, etc. etc.

Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton

Little Warriors

Serious public service announcement over now.   Feel free to go on about your weekend.


  1. Mmm, we talk about this a lot in our house. There is a fantastic (if terrifying) book called "Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists and Other Sex Offenders." by Anna Salter (they have it at EPL). She's a psych PhD who's spent her career interviewing thousands of sexual offenders. Her book provides insight into how offenders operate (using their own anecdotes about what they look for and how they weasel their way into your child's life), and she really does give you specific ways to minimize the risk of an offender targeting your child.

  2. Kate - does she just write about unknown offenders or does she tackle family/friends etc?

  3. Pretty much exclusively about offenders who are known to the kids and their families. She spends a lot of time talking about how offenders situate themselves around children, how they say they choose the target child from among all the kids they know, how they groom child and family (good info here on ways to minimize your child's risk), how they ensure secrecy and so on.
    She excerpts paragraphs from transcripted interviews with offenders and it is amazing to see that most of them engage the same types of strategies to find specific family situations, isolate the child, groom the family, evade suspicion and so on.
    It has lowered my threshold of suspicion drastically (and I didn't think it could go much lower).

  4. I'll totally check it out - (though I probably don't need even more to be nervous about ;) Sounds like a good resource.

  5. This is a great post. Thanks for writing it.

    The stats are so frightening :(

  6. T - your post is fantastic. I want to add another element: Educate your children at a very very young age to properly name all of their body parts. Predators look for children who have limited understanding and vocabulary, bc of course it limits the victim's ability to disclose.

    My parents were upset that my kids said "penis" and "testicles" as freely as they'd say "nose"..... They got used to it. ;)

  7. I am living proof that sexual abuse happens at the hands of those you trust. In my case it was father...

    Thank you for this informative blog. Let's continue to open our mouths, TALK... BE HEARD! :)

    PS. Syncronistic that we both have the same blog layout?