Sexual Abuse Awareness Month: Rethinking Stranger Danger in Kids

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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, only about 10 percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are strangers to the child.

“Don’t talk to strangers,” we tell our children in the hopes that this will keep them safe from suspicious people they may encounter when they’re not with us. But many parents don’t realize that strangers are not the most common perpetrators of child abuse.

“For kids who are sexually abused, it is most often by someone they know, such as a family member, babysitter, or coach—someone they did trust,” says Tara Harris, M.D., medical director of the Pediatric Center of Hope at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, only about 10 percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are strangers to the child. An estimated 30 percent of perpetrators are family members and an estimated 60 percent are people in the child’s life such as childcare providers or neighbors. So what can parents do to prevent this?  A lot. Dr. Harris explains how you can protect your child.

Talk about appropriate behavior

Once your child is old enough to learn the names of body parts, let her know that no one should be touching her private parts other than Mommy or Daddy or a caregiver who is bathing or changing her. Reiterate this in a matter-of-fact way as situations call for it. For instance, when you go to the pediatrician, explain that it’s okay for the doctor to examine your child because the doctor is doing a checkup and Mommy or Daddy is there too. “It’s also important to tell your child that if somebody does see or touch them there, she can tell you and she won’t be in trouble,” says Dr. Harris. While some children are not sure they have been sexually abused, others don’t speak up right away because they fear they will be blamed, or the perpetrator has scared them into silence. So, make sure your child not only knows what inappropriate touching is, but also that she can talk to you, and you will keep her safe.

Let your child set her own boundaries

“If your child doesn’t want to hug or kiss family members sometimes, don’t push him to do so,” says Dr. Harris. “Let your child have control over his body in that way; it sets up a healthy concept of his own personal space.” What’s more, you don’t want to send the message that your child should have to comply with forced affection. If your child isn’t in the mood for a hug, let it be.

Monitor interactions with adults—particularly via electronics

Sexual abuse often begins when a relationship with a trusted adult crosses a line. In many cases, that happens via cell phones or computer messaging. “It may start with an uncle or coach reaching out to the child online, and then the private conversation develops into something inappropriate,” says Dr. Harris. For this reason, she recommends parents oversee their children’s electronic devices. “Children often think of their phone as a personal device, but it’s not. It’s a communication device. If your child wants to have a diary, she can have a diary. But a cell phone or computer is something children should expect their parents to check.” Also, be especially cautious about nighttime usage. “Nighttime is often when dangerous conversations start, so an important safety step is for you to keep that phone and computer overnight. Then, if the soccer coach is texting at 3 am, or inviting your child to Snapchat, you will see those notifications,” she says. Bottom line: If an adult is contacting your child privately online—or in person—you need to be aware.

Trust your child

“When a child does speak up about sexual abuse, really listen and trust her,” says Dr. Harris. “It can be hard for parents to believe that an adult they know is capable of abuse, but it’s important that we err on the side of caution and take kids seriously.” Of course, in some cases, children may not be forthcoming about sexual abuse, so it’s key for parents to be aware of red flags, such as changes in their child’s behavior. “If your child suddenly begins acting out, or stops eating or sleeping well, look into what could be causing him emotional distress—it could be abuse, bullying, or another issue,” says Dr. Harris.

Know that there is help — and hope

Approximately one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. If you suspect that your child is at risk or has been abused, seek help (and note that in Indiana, anybody who suspects child abuse is mandated to report it).

The Pediatric Center of Hope is a safe haven that offers extensive medical evaluations and crisis counseling for children as part of the emergency department at IU Health. The program’s team includes all five of the physicians in Indiana who are board certified in pediatric child abuse, along with nurse practitioners, nurses, and social workers.

“For emergency cases, there is a special room away from the hustle and bustle from the emergency department that is dedicated just to our patients,” says Dr. Harris.  The area also includes a state-of-the-art facility to handle forensic evidence. For cases that are outside the timeframe for evidence collection (when children disclose months or years after an event has happened), families can access the services of the Pediatric Center of Hope through the outpatient clinic at Riley.

“The most important thing for children’s long-term health and healing is what happens after they tell someone they trust about the sexual abuse,” says Dr. Harris. “If that person protects them and gets them medical care, counseling and support, children can come through it. Kids are resilient.” 

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