Sarah vividly remembers an evening nearly 40 years ago. It was the night her parents discovered that one of their closest family friends, a chosen leader in their local church, had been sexually abusing her.
Her family and his had spent time together every week and even went on vacations together. But one evening, exhausted from evading the pursuits of her abuser for the majority of the day, Sarah (not her real name) had enough. She refused to go to the friend’s home after church that evening, even at her father’s insistence.
Her parents protested because they thought she was being rude.
“I don’t care,” she said.
Then they warned of consequences.
“I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what you do to me. I’m not going in.”
Her mother and father proceeded into the house, humiliated by their 14-year-old’s behavior. Yet later that evening, her mother came into Sarah’s bedroom and asked directly if she had been touched inappropriately. The story of two years’ abuse, degradation, and humiliation poured out.
Unfortunately, far more victims have never told a soul. Not their husbands, their wives, their pastors, parents, or siblings.
Can this be prevented? The following ideas may protect your child from the tragedy of sexual abuse—and its devastating effects on generations to come.
1. Understand what an abuser looks like. Interested in what the profile might look like?
It could be anyone.
Nobody is beyond the power to abuse. Most of us can name at least one person whom we thought, for example, wouldn’t be subject to moral failure … only to discover how wrong we were.
This does not mean that you should live in fear and distrust. However, we should not love in foolishness. We are told to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
One of the pitfalls of the “Stranger Danger” campaign of the 1980’s was the message children received that a “stranger” would be wearing a trench coat, hat, and dark glasses: in essence, that children could identify people who were harmful to them. This is not necessarily the case and often an abuser is someone the child knows.
A more apt concept in The Berenstain Bears Learn about Strangers finds Mama Bear cutting apples for the cubs. One apple that looks gnarled on the outside is perfectly fine on the inside; but another that looks beautiful outwardly is full of worms.
2. “I believe you.” This is a crucial message to communicate. Imagine, for example, that your son or daughter is in a conflict, and you find another adult chastising your child. Rather than asking for the child’s version of the story, you proceed to punish. Now imagine that your child did nothing wrong in that situation and was mistakenly accused.
Your child thinks, If they believed another adult when I didn’t do anything wrong, what will happen when I think something is wrong? What if it was my fault that this person touched me––or what if I misunderstood what just happened?
Children are far from innocent, and they often try to manipulate us. But they also must feel they will be heard and trusted. Early in life you can try to instill honesty and accuracy in their speech in the smallest communication, so that when it matters, the relationship is there. They can be trusted to tell the truth and you can be trusted to listen.
3. “You can believe me.” Jesus describes Himself as Truth (John 14:6) and Satan as the father of lies. Even simple, understandable, truthful explanations about the world establish a relationship of trust. When your children ask questions about sex, for example, do you pretend you don’t know what they’re talking about? Or, do you communicate that this is an embarrassing topic?
If authenticity is the policy, your children will feel more comfortable approaching you sooner should abuse take place. If you can’t talk about sex without looking ashamed or evasive, you can’t expect children to feel comfortable approaching you about questionable sexual activity.
4. Talk about it. Open communication is a key to stopping abuse before it happens. You have the ability to lovingly prepare your children for experiences you can’t anticipate by speaking of sex and other topics in healthy, secure ways. This not only gives your children confidence with you; it may also grant them confidence in the presence of a potential abuser.
Remind your children that they can always tell you if someone makes them feel embarrassed or uncomfortable—that you won’t be angry with them. Communicate respect for their bodies and help them feel comfortable and articulate about themselves by calling private parts by their proper names.
5. Be alert to signals or changes in behavior. Does a child demonstrate strange conduct or resist spending time with a particular person? Is he suddenly withdrawn or performing poorly in school?
Being careful not to discourage open communication, try to figure out why a child asks certain questions. After you answer the question honestly, you might say, “That’s an interesting question. What made you want to ask that? I like to hear how you process things and how you think.”
A child’s artwork or premature knowledge of sexual terms may act as clues to their sexual experiences. They may also tip you off to someone who has been introducing inappropriate television programs or magazines to your child.
6. Know the patterns of a perpetrator. Many abusers begin by giving their potential victims unique privileges, gentle touch, or special gifts. This creates a sense of affection, making the victim feel set apart or special. As stated before, it also desensitizes them to further advances. Ask your children to tell you if they receive special gifts or attention.
7. Avoid situations of unnecessary risk. Without acting out of fear, or unreasonably keeping your children from life experiences and relationships, use discernment with your child’s activities. What will the atmosphere and activities be like at the slumber party? Will someone else be riding home with your child and the coach? Are you aware of your children’s location when they’re with friends or family? (By the way, establish an “open door” policy at your own gatherings.)
Thoughtfully, prayerfully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of your boundaries. Choose wisely and then leave the protection of your children in their Father’s capable hands.
8. Ingrain respect. Dan Allender’s invaluable work on the healing of abuse, The Wounded Heart, reported that 29 percent of sexual abuse occurs in relationship with a family member, and that 60 percent of abuse takes place with someone else known by the victim. Instilling respect of women (see 1 Peter 3:7) and a high value of the marriage bed to your children (see Hebrews 13:4) can proactively help prevent abuse––working to keep boys from becoming perpetrators and your children from becoming victims.
Even very young children have opportunities to stand up for weaker children, protecting them and showing them compassion. Boys in particular learn the underlying message of manners––respect––when they give girls special honor by opening doors for them, carrying heavier items, and performing physical chores (tasks otherwise known as chivalry). Girls simultaneously learn that they are worthy of respect and honor no matter their gender or physical strength, and that their bodies are precious gifts.
9. Don’t always believe the best. It is a well-founded biblical principle that we regard others with love and charity. But we also need to train our children that if someone makes them feel uncomfortable in any way––including those in authority or someone they know we like or respect––they can and need to actively, confidently resist that person and tell us.
A common mentality of any abuse victim involves thoughts like, That must have been a mistake. He didn’t mean to do that. I must have done something to make him treat me like that. I must be wrong. Teach children to trust their instincts, and to assertively draw boundaries.
In addition, instruct them that if someone tells them not to tell something which is uncomfortable or relates to their body, that is when it’s most important to tell you.
10. Pray for your children. Pray for their protection according to God’s will, and for the healthy development of their sexuality. Pray for increasing wisdom as you teach and guard them. Pray also that your children will not harm others and will enjoy the freedom God intends within the purity of a marriage relationship. Pray that if your children are in a dangerous situation, they will have wisdom beyond their years, that a predator will be quickly discovered, and that healing and God’s best will flow from even the worst of situations (see Genesis 50:20).
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