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Holly Swanson: Teaching Our Kids About Sexual Abuse Needs to Happen Now

by on June 20, 2012 6:12 AM

The testimony at Jerry Sandusky’s trial has been gut-wrenching. The alleged victims detailed terrible acts of abuse and expressed fear and shame as the reasons why they told no one.

Then came alleged victim No. 9. When asked why he never told anyone, he said, “How are you supposed to tell your mom something like that? Who would believe you?”

How horrible for both the victim and his mom. Like most parents, I’m sure she taught her son lots of ways to keep himself safe: look both ways when crossing the street, always wear a bike helmet, don’t play with matches.

But also like many parents, she probably didn’t talk to her son about sexual abuse. Even today, not warning our kids about sexual predators is sadly common. I’ve seen a lot of online chatter recently from parents who complain about the news coverage of the trial: The testimony is too graphic. Children don’t need to hear about such things. Knowing about abuse could make children afraid of adults.

Good.

I’d rather have my children grow up with a healthy dose of skepticism toward overly-friendly adults than see them testifying about their own sexual abuse. We spend a lot of time educating our children about strangers but, most of the time, pedophiles and predators are not shady characters dressed in all black hanging around playgrounds. They are family friends and relatives, coaches, counselors, medical professionals, and, always, the last person you would expect.

We tell our children not to get in a car with strangers, but do we tell them that it’s not OK for any adult to look in their pants? We tell them not to run with scissors, but do we tell them that no one has the right to touch them inappropriately? Do they know what an “inappropriate touch” even is?

Most child sexual abuse occurs gradually after the predator takes time to groom both the victim and his or her family. The first few touches may barely cross the line of being inappropriate as the abuser tests the child’s limits. The parents, meanwhile, usually view the abuser as a caring mentor who has taken an interest in the child.

When the touching does cross the line, many children, as we’ve heard this week, are too afraid to tell anyone. If a child has never heard of sexual abuse themselves, they won’t even have the vocabulary to explain what happened. They may be so surprised by the act that they find it too difficult to talk about.

But if parents teach their children that it is unacceptable for an adult to touch a child’s penis or vagina, their children will be more empowered to tell an adult “no” and speak up if it does happen.

Likewise, children must be told that it is not OK for an adult to ask a child to touch them. Even if the child isn’t hurt in the act, he or she needs to understand that this is still abuse and that a parent or trusted adult needs to know about it.

Prior to the Sandusky news in November, I had never really talked to my son about sexual abuse. But he knew about the protests and the anger and I didn’t want him to hear the rumors or allegations from anyone else. So using Sandusky as a launching point, I explained in just graphic enough detail what the accusations are. I asked him if knowing about these things scares him, and I explained that some parents don’t want to talk about sexual abuse because it might make children overly anxious around adults.

“They’re wrong,” my 8-year-old said. “They need to tell them so the kids know about it. Otherwise, it could happen to them and then they’ll really be scared of other people.”

We like to think that sexual abuse doesn’t happen to families like ours in towns like ours, but we have seen that it can happen to anyone. National statistics say that as many as one out of four girls and one out of six boys will be sexually abused before reaching adulthood. In the average local elementary school classroom, there are, statistically speaking, five students who will be sexually abused before graduating high school.

Children are more likely to be sexually abused than they are to be diagnosed with cancer or autism. If we had concerns that our children had a medical condition, we'd rush them to the doctor.

So why are we not paying the same level of vigilance to suspected abuse? As the Sandusky case has taught us, we are painfully ignorant of abuse even when it happens close by.

For more information about protecting your child from sexual abuse, visit Vision of Hope.

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Holly Swanson is a State College-based freelance writer. She is on Twitter @statecollegemom and can be reached via email at hollyannswanson@verizon.net.
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