1 in 6. 1 in 6 boys will be a victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18.
The stat is scary — scary enough that most of us push it out of our minds. We push it out of our minds because it’s uncomfortable and scary and, I believe, because we know, on some deep down level, that there is nothing we can do to ensure our kids’ safety.
That fear, discomfort and sense of helplessness causes paralyzes some parents. Other parents become hyper vigilant, restricting their child’s movement and activities in an effort to keep him safe.
A better approach: Use the facts to guide your actions.
According the research, the vast majority of sexual abusers are not strangers; most sexual abusers know their victims. And most of them “groom” the victim for a period of time before initiating inappropriate contact.
More facts: sexual abusers often prey on “lost” boys. Boys who feel left out and alienated, boys from troubled families, boys who are depressed, boys who are in trouble, boys from loving families who feel misunderstood.
You are 10-years-old. Your home life is less-than-stellar. Not abusive, necessarily; just less-than-nurturing. Perhaps your mom works all the time to support the family. Maybe your dad just lost his job and is feeling kind of depressed. Maybe your parents are too busy to really spend time with you, and maybe, in your heart of hearts, you’re feeling a little bit lonely.
Along comes a coach. Where your parents see an interruption and interference, he sees potential. He spends time with you. He tells you you’re special. He smiles when he sees you coming; your mom frowned today when she saw your report card.
So when your coach invites you to his house after practice, you feel honored. His family is so nice to you!
Now…imagine this scenario playing out over a matter of months or years. Imagine the warm feelings you develop for the coach. Now imagine that the coach touches your back just a little too long after dinner one day. The quick squeeze of the shoulders turns into something else — fingers rubbing up and down your back. It feels odd, but it’s over as soon as it starts.
Would you tell someone? Probably not. After all, “nothing” really happened, and Coach is a good guy. Besides, you’re 10; he’s the adult. It seemed normal to Coach, so you’re probably just over-reacting.
No wonder kids don’t always tell right away.
Knowing the facts about sexual abuse empowers you to help your family. Want to keep your sons safe? Follow these six steps:
- Love your children. All children need to feel special, loved and valuable. Love your children, and be kind to their friends as well. Listen to their hopes, dreams and fears. Support their efforts and desires. A child with a strong sense of self and a strong support system at home is not an attractive target for sexual abuse.
Teach children to question authority. Teachers and coaches and priests are not always right. Let your child know that it’s OK to ask questions and express opinions — and live that lesson in your home. Encourage children to think critically; welcome their questions and queries.
Minimize opportunity. One-on-one situations are the most dangerous for kids. Does that mean that your child can never go fishing with an adult friend? No. It means that you better know that friend awfully well first. And that you should pay close attention to your child’s behavior before and after outings with the friend. At the first sign of trouble, halt all further contact until you figure out what’s going on.
Teach children the difference between good and bad secrets. Abusers often convince children to keep “their secret.” So be sure to tell your child about the different kinds of secrets. Good secrets — like birthday surprises — are ones that make people feel happy. Good secrets are only kept for a certain period of time before they’re revealed. Bad secrets, on the other hand, make you feel yucky inside. Bad secrets are ones that are supposed to be kept forever. Tell your child that you will help him handle bad secrets.
Steer away from adults who exhibit risky behavior. Adults who don’t respect your rules when they’re with your child may be setting up an unhealthy dynamic. Also be alert for adults who want to spend time alone with kids.
6. Respond to symptoms. Be alert for these possible symptoms of abuse:
- Change in appearance. Kids who are being sexually abused may start dressing in baggy, unattractive clothing.
- Withdrawal and social isolation. It’s common for teens to spend time alone in their rooms. But if your child has pulled away from all his friends, something more might be going on.
- Anxiety. Some kids will be anxious before specific activities. Other sexually abused kids experience general anxiety.
- Decreased school performance. Have your child’s grades recently dropped, for no explainable reason?
- Disinterest in usual activities. If your formerly hyped-up-about-football son loses interest in the sport, it’s up to you to figure out what’s up.
- Report your suspicions. According to the first reports out of Penn State, another football coach called his dad — not the police –after witnessing a disturbing scene between Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy. (The coach has since said he talked with the police). Frankly, I can understand how shock might impair activity. But the bottom line is this: kids’ lives are on the line. Sexual abuse affects victims’ entire lives; it affects the lives of their children and spouses as well. So don’t wait. If you even think that something inappropriate is going on between an adult and a child, speak up. Report your suspicions to the authorities and let them conduct an investigation.
Have you talked about sexual abuse with your kids?