Preventing Child Sexual Abuse

I’m used to the face people make when I tell them that I work with children and youth affected by sexual abuse; it’s a look that starts with shock and disbelief and quickly shifts to disgust and settles on an uncomfortable “Oh, wow, I don’t know how to respond to that…” Sexual assault is difficult to talk about, a topic a lot of folks steer clear of – and sexual abuse of children is something people REALLY don’t want to talk about, or think happens. But it does. Any time I speak to a group and introduce myself and my position here at The Women’s Community I say the same thing – I LOVE my job but I wish there wasn’t the need for it to exist. Working with children and youth affected by sexual abuse is difficult, of course, but I love what I do for a few compelling reasons – #1 It’s necessary. Child sexual abuse IS occurring and ignoring it will not make the issue disappear. Experts estimate that 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. 30% of children are abused by family members and as many as 60% are abused by someone the family trusts. We need to recognize this in order to stop it. #2 Children can be remarkably resilient and studies have shown that the addition of even one additional caring, trustworthy adult in a child’s life can drastically increase their ability to heal past the abuse and move forward into a healthy adulthood.

A critical piece of preventing child sexual abuse is teaching children body safety and boundaries; what is a safe touch and what isn’t, how to tell an adult and not keep any harmful secrets about unsafe touch. Starting at a young age – 4 years old, for example – talk with your children about their bodies, boundaries, safe and unsafe touches and secrets. Teach children that their bodies are special and that they belong to them. Empower your children that they have a voice and can say “NO” if something doesn’t feel right or is uncomfortable – even something like giving someone a hug, even family members, if a child isn’t comfortable reassure them they have the right to say no to that interaction and touch. Tell your children they can talk with you about anything and BELIEVE children if they tell you they experienced abuse – children RARELY lie about abuse and your belief in their story can empower them with the strength to start their healing. Reassure your children it is NEVER their fault if they are abused. Finally, don’t hesitate to report abuse – reporting is crucial and adults need to trust their instincts and always err on the side of protecting children.

The Women’s Community covers these body basics with students in elementary schools throughout Marathon County in our Play It Safe program. Contact Kimberly at (715)842-5663 or kimberly@womenscommunity.org for more information or to schedule our program in your school.

Kimberly Pufahl, Sexual Assault Victim Services Family Advocate