Grown men behaving badly. What else is new? Or news? It seems whenever you open your browser (or turn on the TV), another man with fame, fortune, and power bites the dust, as women come forward, speak up, and say, “Enough with your loutish, abusive, and (very often) criminal behavior!” Every parent fears that their child could someday be a victim of abuse (or worse) at the hands of an adult pedophile. You would think there is some kind of epidemic of child abuse, with new accusations, denials, and apologies being so frenetically reported by the media. Actually, Rachel Rabkin Peachman reports, adults preying on children is less common than it use to be:

Over the past 25 years, the overall rate of reported cases of sexual abuse of children in the United States has actually declined by 65 percent, according to research conducted by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. Dr. Finkelhor attributes the decline to several factors, not the least of which are a growing awareness of the problem and an increase in education and training surrounding the identification and prevention of sexual assault.

“It’s not like we are having a new epidemic, but it looks like this new awareness is resulting in some improvement of the situation,” Dr. Finkelhor said.

 

90% of adult perpetrators of child sex abuse are known to the child, with 30% a family member. Only 10%, Peachman says, are strangers. Peachman offers tips on how to keep your child from becoming a #MeToo. The first point — teach body awareness early — is extremely important and is something that parents should be able to provide, perhaps with a little help from their pediatrician:

As your child is learning to talk, use the real names of body parts and genitals during diaper changes or bath time — and let them know that no one should touch their private parts other than a parent, caregiver or doctor. Further, in those instances, explain that the touch should be brief, and in the case of a doctor visit, a parent or other adult should be present

“It’s never too early to teach children that their body belongs to them,” said Debby Herbenick, a professor of public health at Indiana University and a fellow at the Kinsey Institute. For instance, when you tickle your kids and they tell you to stop, you stop. The same applies to physical affection. “Sometimes parents think they have to make their kids hug or kiss relatives, but they don’t. You can suggest it but if the child says ‘no,’ just leave it at that, which teaches kids that how they give affection is their choice to make and not something they have to do to make somebody else feel good or happy — or do out of obligation,” Dr. Herbenick said.

Once your child requests privacy in the bathroom or while changing, grant it, said Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and author. “This communicates the concept of dignity, enables children to discern what’s appropriate and what’s not, and it teaches them independence and agency over their own bodies,” she said.

 

Role playing can help kids listen to their intuition and act on it:

“We tend to emphasize manners to kids, but when they are in a situation where they’re starting to feel uncomfortable, they often don’t feel they have the power to be rude and leave,” Dr. Mogel said…

Role-playing helps give children a script for awkward conversations, Dr. Finkelhor said. “Kids can find it hard to articulate, ‘I need to go home’ or ‘You can’t touch me that way,’ and having practiced saying those strong messages makes them more likely to be able to do it when needed.”

 

Especially when the perpetrator is a family member or a prominent person in the community, it’s important that parents and other adults make clear you’re there for support:

It’s crucial to tell your child that if somebody makes her uncomfortable or touches her inappropriately, she can tell you and she won’t be in trouble. Often children have been told by the perpetrator that nobody will believe them if they tell, they will lose their social status, they will be blamed or that they will give up what may seem like a special relationship with the offender, said Dr. Tara Harris, medical director of the Pediatric Center of Hope at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.

 

Finally, Peachman urges parents to stay vigilant and be aware of your child’s behavior:

Still, within reason, keep tabs on your child’s life. “I encourage parents to have the rule that phones and electronic devices stay in the parents’ room at night,” Dr. Harris said. “Kids should be sleeping, not playing on their phone at night; and that’s usually when people text kids in inappropriate ways.” Monitoring late-night communications can be a way to prevent questionable relationships from developing.

 

And then this final piece of advice:

If your child discloses an assault, don’t dismiss it. “One of the biggest factors in how a child recovers from what happened is the reaction they get when they tell an adult,” Dr. Harris said.

 

 

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