Written and Provided by The Mamabear Effect
While it is easier and more comfortable to focus on protecting our children from those we know the least, many children are sexually abused within their own family – by a parent, sibling, cousin, or aunt/uncle. Since these are the people we have known the longest and often trust the most – it seems almost offensive to consider the possibility of sexual abuse being perpetrated by a favorite grandparent or happy go lucky niece or nephew, and especially by a spouse.
So, how do we help keep our kids safe with the ones we love? Here are a few tips that can decrease risk and make it more comfortable to discuss.
1. Make it Part of Normal Conversation
Break the ice – and talk about it. Every day, there are new cases hitting the news of perpetrators being accused and convicted – often with little detail about the victim to protect their privacy. Perhaps you saw a post on the issues of sexual abuse through social media, or came upon a body safety book at your library. Talking about sexual abuse doesn’t and shouldn’t require a ‘family meeting’ – it can, and should be a part of regular conversation.
When we talk about it, we can gain a sense of how other people feel about the subject – what they know, and share what we know. When we’re not afraid to talk about it, we’re not only giving others a chance to learn – we’e letting potential abusers know that we’re vigilant.
Especially with our spouses/partners, it is best when we are both on the same team. If you are all about teaching body safety and taking precautions and your spouse is acting like you’re ridiculous – that certainly doesn’t help and may even be a sign that they are deterring you on purpose.
2. Promote Body Autonomy
Of course grandparents and aunties and uncles often want to hug, kiss, wrestle, and tickle the little ones in the family – but children also need to know they have a right to say no, and be respected when they want to stop. It not only empowers the child, it also diminishes the ability for grooming tactics of offenders. When other adults stand up for the rights of children, the child is more likely to believe they will be helped if someone ever did anything inappropriate.
3. Ask Them To Be In Your Child’s Body Safety Circle
Every child should know that they can talk to more people than just their parents if they feel sad, scared, or need advice. We recommend five such people. By inviting family members to take responsibility for being open to any suspicion or potential disclosure we’re improving the ability to keep our children under watchful eyes.
And the truth is, many children do not tell their parents first – they often tell a friend or a peer. Inviting an older, responsible cousin or other family member into the body safety circle may help increase the likelihood of the child telling someone that knows to get help.
4. Be Vigilant for Signs of Grooming
An adult or older child that:
- seems to have a ‘favorite’ child or seems excessively affectionate/complimentary.
- only plays with the kids and doesn’t hang out with people their age.
- tends to bully or boss around the other children.
- makes sexually inappropriate comments.
- has a lot of ‘cool’ stuff that the kids always want to check out.
- seeks alone time with children, away from others.
- Downplays the need for privacy when bathing, using the toilet, dressing or sleeping.
Or any other possible red flag behavior.
5. Increase Supervision
While it may be great that the kids are being occupied with video games in the basement, having grandparents watch the kids instead of hiring a babysitter, or taking trips to the movies, park etc with a favorite aunt & uncle – we must accept that when our children are alone with others, that is when the risk for abuse increases. Even during a family gathering, a child can be isolated within the house and abused. While this shouldn’t mean that we never let our children out of our sight – we may want to take a break and ‘check in’ to see what they’re up to.
6. Listen & Observe Behaviors
If a child is often alone with another family member – we should take note of the frequency and assess whether or not we feel comfortable with the interactions between the child and peer/adult. Even if it is a sibling or family member babysitting or spending time alone with the child as a regular part of the day. We need to ask open ended questions and listen for their response and observe body language. Who is doing the talking and how much information is being shared.
Does the adult seem controlling or overly attentive to the child? Does the child look forward to seeing this person – is the child talkative in regard to how they spend their time together or does the other person seem to dominate the conversation? Does the child complain or make vaguely derogatory comments about the person? Does the child withdraw or refuse to talk? Do you witness any other warning signs of abuse?
7. Talk To Our Children
We put this at the end of the list on purpose. Many feel that simply talking to their kids about safe & unsafe touches and ‘yelling and telling’ is enough. When we talk to our kids about sexual abuse in vague terms – “if someone ever touches you” or refer to abusers as ‘bad people’ the child may not realize the people they like are capable of abuse – and they may be too afraid to say no or tell.
It may feel uncomfortable to talk with other members of our family about sexual abuse and therefore put the responsibility on children. Yet, this is often how sexual abuse is perpetrated within families that do teach their kids body safety. To us, teaching kids body safety is like a seat belt – it’s there in case of an accident, but ultimately we’re the ones that are in the driver’s seat and should be doing everything in our power to avoid a dangerous situation in the first place.
- Children should know that no one – not their parents, siblings, grandparents, etc have a right to touch them or show them anything related to their bodies that makes them uncomfortable.
- No one should be asking them to keep secrets. No one should be threatening them or forcing them to do anything they don’t like.
- And most importantly, that it’s not their job to protect themselves, it’s our job . Their only job is to tell, so that we can get help. Not just for them, but for the person who is breaking the rules about body safety.
8. Don’t Forget Our Teens
As our children begin to develop into young adults, their own sense of self confidence and desire for independence may sway us into a false sense of security that they are no longer a target of abuse, or that they are better prepared to protect themselves. On the contrary, as these young teens go through puberty, they may, in fact, become a target. These children are indeed, still children and need our protection. The fact that they know more about sexual abuse may make it even more challenging for them to tell – they may blame themselves more for the abuse and/or suffer greater psychological damage.
It is just as important that we continue the conversation – with other family members and our children, and maintain a communication channel between ourselves and our children as best we can, while respecting their growing need to gain independence and responsibility for themselves.
But talking to our kids shouldn’t just be about protecting them from others, but also so they understand what it means to treat others with respect and what healthy, responsible bodily and sexual behavior is. Puberty is a common period of development for children to be curious about their own sexuality, and without proper guidance and open communication, the likelihood for a child to perpetrate sexual abuse increases.
9. Listen To Our Gut
When our instinct sends a warning signal that something may be unsafe – we should listen. It may not always be right, but it always has our child’s best interests in mind.
In the past, some non-offending parents noticed but didn’t pick up on or tried to downplay certain signs before their child disclosed abuse:
- An offending grandparent that kept suggesting the child was ‘too attached’ to her parents and needed more time away from them.
- A spouse that flattered his daughter about her looks in comparison to his wife ‘ you look better in that dress than your mother ever did!’
- An aunt that continued to give her nephew gifts, despite the parents asking her to stop.
- An uncle that would watch tv with his nephew’s head in his lap.
- A child that always played with cousins much younger than him.
10. Don’t Wait for A Disclosure
If you feel concern about a situation or person – seek professional advice from your local child advocacy center. Keep in mind, not all reports of suspected abuse will lead to an investigation, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing all we can to address a concern within the family. Reducing opportunity for abuse and establishing a network of caring, educated adults is key. If your child exhibits signs of depression or low self esteem, there are a variety of therapy methods that can be employed to help the child and encourage a possible disclosure.
While it’s an ugly truth that many children are sexually abused by family, it is a reality that will not be changed unless we do more to protect our children. There is a stigma that a family must be dysfunctional or have parents that neglect their children for abuse to occur, and this is simply not the case. Abuse often occurs in some of the most loving families because they often want to see the best in people. When we talk about sexual abuse and work together as a family to create an environment that is safer for children – we make our families stronger and ultimately impact future generations, so that one day our grandchildren and great grandchildren will find it odd that it wasn’t something talked about.
After all, children have a right to be safe from all form of abuse, and we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to protect that right.
Copyright The Mama Bear Effect, Inc 2015. This blog post cannot be republished without written consent.