Over the past decade, parents, teachers and youth workers have intensified their efforts to protect children from sexual assault and to identify incidents of abuse as soon as possible. Countless books, teaching materials and community programs now offer sound advice on reducing the risk of sexual assault. A checklist of some of the key ways that parents can help protect their children—and uncover incidents of abuse:
FOSTER A CHILD’S SELF-ESTEEM
More than 90 per cent of assaults are committed by relatives, close family friends and other
adults known to the child. Such abusers frequently use flattery, bribery and threats to coerce vulnerable children, whose emotional needs may not be met by their families. Psychologists and social workers emphasize that children require a solid sense of self-worth to help them make difficult judgments about confusing adult behavior. A consistent pattern of positive reinforcement by parents is an important element in strengthening a child’s emotional security. “Research suggests that abuse prevention programs work much better for kids with self-esteem,” says Leslie Tutty, assistant professor of social work at the Uni-
versity of Calgary. “Such children are able to trust their own feelings and to tell an adult if they have run into a problem—or to be assertive and tell someone else if they are not believed.”
JUST SAY NO
Many experts recommend that children be taught the differences between appropriate and inappropriate touching. Several programs across the country use plays, puppet shows or illustrated materials to teach children about the parts of the body, their right to refuse physical contact—and what to do if an adult attempts to touch them in unwelcome ways. Explains Suzanne Mulligan, executive director of a Hamilton, Ont.-area community childabuse council: “We do a disservice to our kids if we do not arm them with the information they need.”
UNDERSTAND A CHILD’S WORLD
Busy parents sometimes fail to see the physical world from their child’s perspective. Experts recommend that parents tour their neighborhoods, identifying places such as parks, vacant lots, empty buildings and wooded areas where children may be away from adult supervision—and more prone to assault. According to Personal Safety for Children-. Parent Information, published by the Child Abuse Research & Education Productions Association of Surrey, B.C., parents frequently assume that other people are trustworthy—with sometimes tragic results. Parents should get to know their neighbors as well as members of their children’s peer groups. Babysitters should be carefully screened, while parents should also make the effort to review the time that a sitter spends with their child. Adults who participate in children’s extracurricular activities and supervise outings such as school trips should also be closely scrutinized.
In general, children should be taught to avoid contact with strangers, whether young or old, well-dressed or poorly dressed, male or female—except in the company of a parent or another trusted adult. But because some strangers,
such as those in uniform, can be helpful in threatening situations, simply instructing a child not to talk to strangers is seldom enough. Susan Laverty, an acting staff sergeant with the Ontario Provincial Police in Orillia, notes
that children should be made aware of so-called safe strangers, including security guards in shopping malls and police officers. Says Laverty: “Children need to know the difference between the policeman and the man in the car with a puppy. They should be instructed to say no to such people and to go to a safe place and tell someone.”
PLAYING ‘WHAT IF?'
Because children often do not understand—or they forget—adult explanations and instructions, many experts recommend that parents participate in role-playing games with their children, using questions that begin with “What if?” Topics could include a wide range of situations, such as unwelcome touching by adults, the offer of candies or other gifts in exchange for such touching, or commands to keep incidents between an adult and a child a secret. Children also need to be assured that sometimes it might be impossible to prevent becoming a victim of abuse, and that if it occurs it is not their fault. Says Tutty: “Kids are egocentric and tend to selfblame, so it is important to stress the opposite.”
BE AWARE OF THE SIGNS OF ABUSE
Many children are ashamed to talk about being abused, frequently because of their tendency to blame themselves. They may also fear retribution from the abuser if they speak out. In the event of abuse, however, it is likely that a child’s everyday behavior will undergo marked changes. Although sleep and eating patterns may be disrupted, the clearest indicator that abuse has occurred is a child’s acting out of sexual conduct that is inappropriate for his or her age. Children should be questioned in a calm, clear and straightforward way. Parents should not show excessive worry—if they do, a
child may not reveal what has happened for fear of worrying parents even more. It is often necessary to persist in the face of initial denials or lack of response and, in the case of small children, to use acting-out games to get at the truth.
WHAT TO DO IF ABUSE OCCURS
Children should be told that they have done the right thing by reporting the actions—and that they have nothing to fear from threats. They should also be reassured that they will be protected from further assault and that the blame lies entirely with the abuser. Parents should report incidents to the police or child protection agencies. Because many abusers are repeat offenders, prompt action may help to protect others. Medical attention may also be necessary, as well as counselling.
REPEAT THE LESSONS
Experts point out that close, continuing involvement by parents often makes a critical difference in helping a child avoid sexual assault. Says John Pearce, a psychologist with the child-abuse program at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary: “Parents are missing the boat if they think that a one-hour streetproofing program at age five is going to protect their child.” Frequent review is essential. Pearce also cautions that parents should always shoulder the responsibility for protecting their children, never transferring it to the child. Said Pearce: “Kids may know what to do, but they may not be able to do it under physical and emotional pressure from a much larger person.” According to Pearce and many other experts, even the most thorough prevention program is no substitute for the never-ending vigilance that only parents, or their surrogates, provide. □
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