You may have notices blue and silver pinwheels planted around your local schools and hospitals. April was Child Abuse Prevention Month, and I have been meaning to write this post the whole month. Better late than never.
There are some instances when timing is extremely important. Preventing and responding to child abuse is one of those instances. Our best research indicates that long-term, ongoing trauma is massively harmful to survivors and the communities around them. Delaying action in the face of this threat can have heavy consequences.
You can arm yourself and your children against potential harm by following a few simple, though not necessarily easy, steps.
1. KNOW: You can be aware.
A large proportion of our children are abused:
- 20-27.4% of children (about 1 in 4) are sexually abused
- 28% of children are physically abused
- 10.6% of children are emotionally abused
Our children are most often abused by someone they know:
- Nine out of ten children who are sexually abused know their abuser.
- Around 30% of victims are abused by a family member
- Around 40% are abused by an older and/or more powerful child or teen.
Some children (not all) exhibit symptoms of abuse:
- Physical symptoms may include unexplained injuries, complaints of genital pain, symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, poor growth or weight gain, or physical symptoms of anxiety such as headaches or stomachaches.
- Emotional and behavioral symptoms may include isolation or withdrawal, anger, depression, rebellion, sudden changes in behavior, and many other possible changes.
- Sexual knowledge or language that is not age-appropriate may be a warning sign.
- Some children do not exhibit signs.
2. WATCH: Your attention is protection.
- Get to know the people in your child’s life. Many abusers “groom” their victims, slowly drawing them in. Learn more about warning signs of grooming from the resources below.
- Know the signs of abuse, and seek help if you notice any troubling changes.
- Be involved in your child’s activities.
- Talk to your child about online safety, and monitor his or her internet use. Many would-be abusers contact children in online forums, social media, and games.
3. TALK: You can provide power.
- Teach your child the names of his or her body parts so they are empowered to ask questions and communicated about problems.
- Have age-appropriate conversations about sex and sexuality. An abuser may use a child’s automatic physical pleasure to abuse to justify the abuse to the child. You can teach against this by teaching something like: “Sometimes our bodies do things all by themselves because of how they feel, like when you laugh if you’re tickled. Penises get bigger on their own, whether you want it to nor not.”
- Be aware that young children are naturally curious about their own and others’ bodies. Gently set boundaries if you notice them exploring in inappropriate ways, while highlighting ways they can explore. An example might be: “It’s ok to ask questions about baby brother’s body, but we don’t touch his private parts except to keep him clean and healthy.”
- Teach your child he can say “no” to touch that makes him uncomfortable or scared. Sometimes your child may not want to give a friend or family member a hug. Instead of forcing your child to hug, let him choose another way to show respect and care. You might say: “Ok, if you don’t want to hug Nana goodbye, then you need to do something else. Would you like to blow a kiss?”
- Teach your child that some body parts are private, and that no one should touch them there or ask them to undress unless they are providing care. Use everyday activities to teach these lessons. For example, at a doctor’s visit you might say: “Sweetie, Dr. Jones is going to check your private parts now because they are itchy. Remember, its ok for her to do that because mommy is here and she is helping you stay healthy.”
- Teach your child to come to you or another adult right away if anyone ever touches her inappropriately, tries to get her to undress, tries to show your child their private parts, or does anything that makes your child uncomfortable.
- Have open communication with your child in general; encourage them to talk to you with your words and actions.
- Do not try to teach this information in one big talk, and do not wait. Use everyday events like bath time, doctor’s visits, and getting dressed, as opportunities to teach your child. Begin early when your child is learning about his body, clothing, and language.
4. LISTEN: You can react responsibly.
- Believe her, if a child reports abuse to you. Take steps to protect your child from the accused abuser, even if it is unclear what has happen. It is rare for a child to lie about abuse. It is more common for a child not to be believed, or for the abuse to be kept a secret.
- Manage your emotions. Because abuse is often committed by a trusted person, our first response is often shock. This is natural, but do not express disbelief to the child.
- Pay attention to indirect communication. Sometimes children do not know how to clearly describe abuse. They may say the neighbor “hugs too much” or they may simply express a strong dislike for a person. Some children are afraid to tell, so they share slowly and in pieces.
- Young children are often confused about what has happened. Don’t assume the child is lying just because they have trouble describing the event.
- Ask a child questions about suspected abuse, but try not to press for specific details. For example, you might ask, “So, how did you get that bruise?” rather than “Did the neighbor hit you?” Let them describe what happened in their own words, and seek help in learning more.
- Listen to children’s conversations. Most children share about abuse with a friend instead of an adult.
5. ACT: You can find help.
There are resources available to give you information and support.
National resources include:
- Darkness to light, online at d2l.org
- Child Welfare Information Gateway, online at childwellfare.gov
- National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-422-4453, online at childhelp.org
- Prevent Child Abuse America, online at preventchildabuse.org
- National Children’s Advocacy Center, 256-533-5437, online at nationalcac.org
Local resources include:
- Children’s Advocacy Center of Mississippi, 601-940-6183
- Catholic Charities of Jackson, Children’s Mental Health Services, 601-376-0500
- Mississippi State Department of Health, online at msdh.ms.gov
- Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services, online at mdcps.ms.gov, abuse reporting hotline is 601-432-4570
6. Rest: Know there is grace
I know; the title says five steps. But in creating this list (and as a new mother) I feel the strong need to point us to grace. You and I are frail, finite, and sinful, and we cannot perfectly protect our children. Perhaps you feel you have already “failed.” Perhaps you are reading this list wishing you could go back. Or perhaps nothing has has happened…. yet, but the possibility keeps you awake at night (this is me).
There is hope for us and our children. I don’t know your story, I can’t anticipate the consequences of abuse that every reader may be facing. But I do not need to know to be able to declare with perfect confidence that there is hope. I can tell you there is hope because there is a God who does know the deep weight of sin, and He sent a savior who was beaten, broken, and rejected. They, and the Spirit, intimately know you. And whether you know them our not, they are inviting you into a relationship in which all your wounds will one day be healed, all wrongs made right, all tears wiped away.
There is a time between now and heaven where we still suffer the weight of abuse.
But there is hope, and by grace we can rest in that hope.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days…
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Darkness 2 Light, http://www.d2l.org/resources/
Child Welfare Information Gateway, https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/preventing/communities/activities-programs/
Victims of Crime, http://victimsofcrime.org/docs/default-source/ncvrw2015/2015ncvrw_stats_children.pdf?sfvrsn=2
Children and young people disclosing sexual abuse: An introduction to the research, by Debrah Allnock, http://www.childmatters.org.nz/file/Diploma-Readings/Block-2/Sexual-Abuse/3.4-children-and-young-people-disclosing-sexual-abuse-updated.pdf
Stop It Now, http://www.stopitnow.org/advice-column-entry/how-do-we-know-children-rarely-lie-about-abuse
CDC-Kaiser ACE Study, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html