Keeping kids safe from sexual abuse takes some serious awareness and know-how. Here’s the experience that taught me a hard truth: what I thought I knew wasn’t enough.
On an ordinary weekday afternoon, one of my worst fears came true: one of my children came out of an extracurricular activity and told me that the supervising adult had touched him inappropriately.
The scariest part is that it happened even though I’ve educated my children from an early age and even though I was sitting in the adjacent room with the door wide open. The only thing I know to do in the face of this overwhelming reality is to give fearless voice to it for the sake of others and stay vigilant about preparing my children to protect themselves.
I can’t imagine the weight of what we would carry if we hadn’t caught it right away, and because I think most families wouldn’t have caught it as easily as we did, I’ve decided to speak up.
How We Caught It
My child didn’t just get in the car and spill his guts. I had to know to ask, and he had to feel like it was okay to tell.
I spent a lot of time as a single parent when my kids were very young, and it didn’t take me long to learn that child predators often target single parent families. We need more help and accept it often—from babysitting offers to companionship at home.
Knowing that I needed to protect my children, here’s how I chose to equip them:
1. I educated them early and often.
My children were one and three when I first started talking to them about okay touch, not okay touch. Even though my youngest couldn’t understand at first, he was present when I talked to my oldest, and he began to comprehend as he got older.
I taught my children that they’re allowed to say no if anyone touches them in a not okay way, or even an okay way that they don’t want. I taught them that there are no secrets—they can tell me anything, even if someone says not to.
The bathtub was a good place for us to start talking about the topic. It was easy and natural for them to see and understand the parts of their body and which areas are private.
2. I asked questions.
Whenever something seems even remotely suspicious, I ask questions. My kids often don’t share information unless they’re asked, and I’m not afraid to explore with probing questions.
Examples that have been helpful for us are: “It sounded like you were having a lot of fun in there. What was making you laugh so much?” and “It seems like you don’t enjoy being around Mr. So-and-So. Is there anything about him that you want to tell me?”
3. I designated a regular time for talking.
When I noticed that my children weren’t good about putting words to their feelings, I added a new step to our bedtime routine. After stories and lights out, I lay next to them as usual, but then I started asking “Is there anything anybody feels like they need to talk about tonight?”
The first time I asked, the answer was no. But I kept asking, and eventually they started talking. One night I forgot to ask, and as we were laying there in the dark, my oldest son said, “Mommy, are you going to ask if I have anything I need to talk about?” I thanked him for reminding me and asked the question he was expecting.
“Do you have anything you need to talk about tonight?” I said.
“No,” he replied.
I laughed and realized that whether or not they had something to say, talking time had become part of their routine. It gave them practice at communicating the things that were important to them and provided them a designated time to check in with themselves and with me.
4. I don’t expose them to unnecessary risk.
Most kids know their attackers, and I’ve learned to rule no one out. I don’t take just anybody’s offer to babysit, and I understand that child predators can be masked as significant others, friends, teachers, parents, family members, and even other kids. This is where a parent’s intuition comes into play as well as logical preventative steps like educating your child and avoiding leaving them alone in an unexposed area, one-on-one with another adult.
How We Coped
After all that, how did someone get to one of my children? I was in the next room with the door wide open. I could hear, but I couldn’t see. The sounds masked what was really going on, and the open door gave me a false sense of security.
Even though we caught it right away, it’s been an emotionally heavy experience for all involved, and I’ve learned a thing or three from it.
1. I believed my child.
Children rarely make up a false story about sexual abuse, and adults have lots of reasons to not want to believe it when they tell. Because I had asked so many questions over the years and never received an answer like I did that afternoon, I believed my son and knew to take action.
2. I recorded our conversation.
As soon as my son started to talk, I pulled out my phone and began recording discretely. I asked him clarifying questions like what names does he have for the body parts that were touched (he knows anatomically correct names, which helped him communicate clearly exactly what happened), how did he respond when it happened, and had it ever happened before that day. This came in handy during the reporting process and helped to confirm my memories over the next week.
3. I told anyone else who could be in immediate danger.
Sexual abuse is a sensitive topic, and nobody wants to make a false accusation or unnecessarily reveal private information about a victim. But if a child is possibly in danger of having contact with a suspected child predator, I believe their parent needs and wants to know.
4. I praised my child and gave him space to talk.
In the case of sexual abuse, it’s not easy for a child to verbalize what happened. My son was afraid of his attacker finding out he told and was nervous about having to tell other people during the reporting process. When he was brave enough to tell me, I made sure he knew what a courageous act that was. That evening, I used story time to educate my children again and let them know how proud I am of them. Just opening the subject for discussion allowed my son to verbalize his feelings and reveal additional details that I didn’t know to ask about.
5. I reported quickly.
The last thing I wanted to do after I put my children to bed that evening was whip out my laptop and make an official report. But I knew that if I didn’t do it that night, my memory wouldn’t be as sharp the following morning. Immediacy is also important for capturing a child’s memory of an event. In many states, including Florida, it’s mandatory to report suspected abuse within 24 hours. I made my report to the Florida Department of Children and Families. Alternatively, I could have made a police report, which the FDCF did for me the next day.
6. I tried to be gentle with myself.
Half of me knew to pat myself on the back for catching abuse so quickly, but the other half of me wrestled with heavy feelings of guilt. How did I not know it was happening before my son told me? I also cycled through feelings of anger and grief once I passed the initial take-action phase.
Through it all, I tried to remember my mother’s advice: be gentle with yourself.
If there’s any good that can come from our family’s experience, it is knowledge and awareness for other families. Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that it’s extremely difficult to criminally prosecute a sexual abuse case. While the adult has been removed from the extracurricular activity, so far they have no criminal record and are not registered as a sex offender.
If you’re looking for a place to start in educating your children about preventing sexual abuse, I’d recommend the Okay Touch, Not Okay Touch pages from It’s Not the Stork, by Robie H. Harris and I Said No, by Zack and Kimberly King.
It’s up to us to protect our children, and they need it more than most of us realize. Please feel free to share additional tips for keeping kids safe in the comment section below.
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