Providing a Catholic framework on the truth and meaning of sexuality, love, and family

Safeguarding Children

Any parent desiring to safeguard his or her child’s dignity and nurture a sacred sense of sexuality shudders at every headline reporting sexual abuse. Questions that often engage a parent’s mind include “how do I protect my child from harm;” “how do I protect my child’s innocence;” “what do I say;” and “when do I say it”. An important first step for parents is to become more knowledgeable about the nature of sexual abuse and then to think through the messages they want to convey to their child.

What is sex abuse?
Sexual abuse is any act(s) or word(s) initiated by one person that degrades the sexual purity and dignity of another. The sexual abuse of a child or teen is most often initiated by an older child, teen or adult. Ninety percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know the person who violated them.

Where to begin?
Talking about sexual abuse won’t make sense to children or is likely to be frightening if a parent hasn’t conveyed a good and holy understanding of sexuality from the time the child is young. In the way you hold your child, touch them, and speak to them, you can demonstrate a respect for the dignity and goodness of their bodies. In the way you answer their questions or teach them about their bodies, fertility, conception, fetal development and childbirth you should presume a reverence for God’s gift of sexuality. In the way you model restraint and self-discipline, you teach a true sense of self-mastery in your relationship with your child and others.

As a parent you have opportunities each day to share the awe, wonder and truth of God’s design. You can teach your children over and over again that they are made in the image of God, worthy of being loved for their own sake.

Staying Connected is Key!
In addition to affirming your child’s innate dignity and the goodness of the gift of sexuality, maintaining a strong connection and open dialogue with your child is key. A child is more likely to reach out to a parent who is warm, caring and approachable when hurt, scared or confused. Parents who talk daily with their children about their activities, hopes and anxieties increase the likelihood that their child will tell them about confusing, harmful or inappropriate behavior they may have experienced. Initiating conversations with children, taking advantage of teachable moments and maintaining reasonable supervision of your child are ways to be proactive in your efforts to safeguard your child. You also want to be tuned into changes in behavior that may alert you to disruptions in your child’s normal, healthy development.

When to talk?
Talking to your child about sexual abuse and personal safety should be an ongoing process. The information you give and the language you use will depend on the age of your child. Choose times to talk with your child when he or she feels safe and relaxed. Typical family routines that may spark a conversation or be a natural intro are when walking with a child, at bath or bedtime, when seeing or hearing something on TV, or when a child makes a remark or asks a question.

What to say?
In speaking specifically about sexual abuse you want to convey to your child that there are parts of his or her body that are private. You want to let your child know that he or she has your permission to say “NO” to anyone who wants to touch his or her penis, vagina or breasts – even if it is a grown-up your child knows. Let your child know that it is good to tell you about any uncomfortable feelings he or she has about how another person is touching him or her. Emphasize that you want to know if someone bothers your child in any way and let your child know you will listen and believe him or her.

We encourage you to check out the Teen Tips page on this website about sexual abuse. The points there may provide you with the talking points you need to have a dialogue with your teen about this topic.

What to do if my child is abused?
If your child tells you about the inappropriate touch or harmful behavior of another, stay calm and listen to what your child needs to tell you. Don’t interrogate, but do ask minimal questions just to clarify what your child is telling you. Tell your child he or she did the right thing to talk with you. Proceed with caution. Make sure you fully understand what is going on. Be prudent but without doubt, take whatever actions are necessary to protect your child and other children from harm.

Sexual abuse is traumatic and the degree of trauma to a child depends on many factors including the nature of the abuse, number of occurrences, and relationship of the abuser to the child. Seeking help for the whole family from a professional trained specifically in trauma recovery is critical to the child’s ongoing healthy development.

Guidelines for what to do if your child discloses sexual abuse:

An NPR interview of Michael Martin with Jolene Ivey, mother of 5 boys and Dani Tucker, single mother of two teens, a boy and girl. Dr. Leslie Walker, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital is part of the interview. November, 2011

Video of Moms asking questions about talking with their children about sexual abuse

Other helpful articles about sexuality and parenting

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