7 Ways to Prevent Child Abuse

The burden of prevention has been resting for years on the smallest shoulders in our society: the children who are most vulnerable, least powerful, and least likely to be able to protect themselves from a powerful adult. This is especially true when considering that the majority of sexual abuse (93%) happens at the hands of an adult well known to the child. When children are abused by adults they are also confused by the fact that this person is supposed to be a protector, a caretaker, and worthy of trust simply by being an adult (after all, we also teach children to obey adults, which can be very confusing). Child abusers are very often “experts” at emotional manipulation of children, gaining their trust well in advance of the actual abuse. In light of these facts (and many others), it is clear that the time has come for adults to assume responsibility for protecting children. Their shoulders were not built for carrying such weight.

The following facts and the “7 Steps to Protecting Our Children From Sexual Abuse” are directly quoted here with the permission of the nonprofit organization From Darkness to Light. This is an invaluable resource that is well worth “bookmarking.”

Step 1

“Learn the facts and understand the risks. Realities – not trust – should influence your decisions regarding your child.”

  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will have been sexually abused by their eighteenth birthday. Consider this the next time you walk through a mall or down a street and see several or many children. Whenever you enter a classroom or ball game, look around and do the math. It is a sad reality…but one we can have a positive effect on.
  • Only 1 in 10 children reports the abuse themselves. Those children who keep the abuse a secret or who tell and are not believed are far more likely to suffer psychological, emotional, social, and/or physical problems that will most likely follow them into adulthood.
  • 22% of abused children are under 8 years old.
  • The average age of abused children is 9.

Most likely, you know a child who either has been or is being abused.

It is also likely that you know an abuser! Most are not “strangers,” but are our friends and family members.

  • 34% of victims are abused by family members.
  • 59% are abused by people the family judges to be trustworthy. In fact, it is a common tactic of abusers to first establish a trusting relationship with the parents of the child.
  • Many young children are abused by larger, older children.
  • Those who abuse children have no characteristics that “set them apart” for us to identify them as abusers. They look and act just like us and go out of their way to appear trustworthy.
  • Those who sexually abuse children are drawn to places where they will have easy access to children (and are often those we judge to be “wonderful” with children) such as sports leagues, faith centers, clubs, and schools. It is important to be sure that the clubs, leagues, etc., where your child is involved has a policy about doing background checks on its volunteers.

Step 2

Minimize Opportunity – “If you eliminate or reduce one-adult/one-child situations, you will dramatically lower the risk of sexual abuse for your child.”

  • Remember that abusers often befriend the child and the child’s family in order to gain their trust.
  • Always look for group situations to involve your child in rather than placing your child alone with one adult.
  • Strongly encourage policies limiting one-adult/one-child situations in all youth related activities such as faith groups, sports teams, and school clubs. Make sure parents/caregivers can observe or interrupt activities at any time. Also make sure that background checks have been done on all volunteers and others working directly with children.
  • Insist that personnel (paid and volunteer) receive quality training on prevention, recognition, and reporting of child abuse.
  • Drop in unexpectedly when your child is alone with any adult!
  • Monitor your child’s internet use. The internet has become a favorite means for pedophiles to interact privately with children. Their goal is to lure them into physical contact after gaining their trust.
  • Set an example by personally avoiding one-adult/one-child situations with children other than your own.

Step 3

Talk About It – Children often keep abuse a secret, but barriers can be broken down by talking openly about it.

It’s VERY IMPORTANT to understand why children don’t tell.

  • Children are afraid of disappointing their parents.
  • Children are afraid of disrupting the family.
  • The abuser sometimes threatens the child or a family member.
  • The abuser shames the child, points out that s/he let it happen, or tells her or him that their parents will be angry.
  • Some children who did not initially disclose abuse are afraid or ashamed to tell when it happens again.
  • Some children are too young to understand. Many abusers tell children the abuse is “okay” or a “game.”

Know how children communicate.

  • Children who do disclose sexual abuse often tell a trusted adult other than a parent. Therefore, training for people who work with children in any capacity is very important.
  • Children may tell “parts” of what happened or pretend it happened to someone else to gauge adult reaction.
  • Children will often “shut down” and refuse to tell more if you respond emotionally or negatively.
  • If your child does not talk to you, don’t think it’s a sign of poor parenting.

Talk openly with your child.

  • Teach your child that it is your job to protect him.
  • Teach your child that it is not her responsibility to protect others.
  • Demonstrate daily that you will not be angry, no matter what your child tells you about any aspect of his life.
  • Listen quietly. Children have a hard time telling parents about troubling events.
  • Teach your child about her body, about what abuse is and, as age-appropriate, about sex. Teach her words that help her discuss sex comfortably with you.
  • Teach your child that it is against the “rules” for adults to act in a sexual way with children and use examples.
  • Start early and talk often. Use everyday opportunities to talk about sexual abuse.

Step 4

Stay Alert – Don’t expect obvious signs when a child is being sexually abused. Signs are often there but you have to spot them.

Learn the signs.

  • Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common, although redness, rashes, or swelling in the genital area, urinary tract infections, or other such symptoms should be carefully investigated. Also, physical problems associated with anxiety, such as chronic stomach pain or headaches, may occur.
  • Emotional or behavioral signals are more common. These can run from “too perfect” behavior, to withdrawal and depression, to unexplained anger and rebellion.
  • Sexual behavior and language that are not age-appropriate can be a red flag.
  • Be aware that in some children there are no signs whatsoever.

If you find physical signs that you suspect as sexual abuse, have the child physically examined immediately by a professional who specializes in child sexual abuse. Note: If you live outside the area served by Kids First, Inc., call us for a CAC in your area or call the National Children’s Alliance at 1-800-239-9950.

Step 5

Make a Plan – Learn where to go, who to call, and how to react.

Don’t overreact. Just as you stay calm when your child breaks an arm and follow a plan you’ve made in advance for such emergencies, stay calm and follow a plan if your child reports abuse.

If you react with anger or disbelief, the response from the child may be the following:

  • The child shuts down.
  • The child changes his story in the face of your anger and disbelief, when, in fact, abuse may actually be occurring.
  • The child changes his account around your questions so future tellings appear to be “coached.” This can be very harmful if the case goes to court.
  • The child feels even more guilty.

Note: VERY few reported incidents are false.

Offer support.

It’s very important to think through your emotional response before you’re in a position where you suspect abuse. Hopefully, you’ll never need to use the skills, but you will be prepared to respond in a supportive way if the need arises.

  • Believe the child and make sure he knows it.
  • Don’t ask questions. This could be confusing to the child, make her upset, and could damage criminal prosecution of the offender.
  • Assure the child that it’s your job to protect him and that you’ll do everything you can for him.
  • Report in all cases of suspected abuse, whether inside or outside the family. The child’s safety is much more important than any emotional conflict you may have to face. Remember: you are the adult.
  • Don’t panic. Sexually abused children who receive psychological help can and do heal.

Remember: North Carolina is a mandatory reporting state. Act on suspicions and report. If the abuse is outside of the family, report to the police or sheriff’s department. If the abuse happened within the family, report to the Department of Social Services.

Step 6

Act on Suspicions. A child’s wellbeing may depend on it.

If you are in a situation where you suspect abuse but do not have any proof, you may be reluctant to report. Many of us do not trust our “gut” feelings, even though they are most often right. A child cannot afford for you to take the chance that it is wrong. If you are still reluctant, please call one of the following:

  • Kids First, Inc. within the 7 counties we serve.
  • The National Children’s Alliance at 1-800-239-9950 for a CAC in your area (or visit their website, listed on our links page).
  • From Darkness to Light at 1-866-367-5444.
  • Childhelp USA Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.

Step 7

Get involved.

Volunteer and financially support organizations that fight the tragedy of abuse:

  • Your local Child Advocacy Center
  • Prevention Programs
  • Crisis information and referral services
  • Rape crisis centers

Use your voice and your vote (children do not have this right) to make your community a safer place for children.

  • Ask your elected officials what legislation they are supporting to protect children.
  • Support legislation that protects children (contact Prevent Child Abuse NC for more information on current legislation. See web address on links page).
  • Demand that local government put more money into efforts to fight child abuse.
  • Contact members of Congress.
  • Write letters to the newspaper in your area.

Break the cycle of silence.

If you were a victim of sexual abuse, consider using your personal story to break the silence and reach others about the effects of abuse. Very often, people will listen to someone they know much more readily than they will respond to “cold” information.

There are 40 million survivors of sexual abuse in America today. May the prevention of further abuse and healing begin. You can make the difference!