THE NEW YORK TIMES
November 16, 2017
How to Help Your Child Not Be a #MeToo
By Rachel Rabkin Peachman
They are public officials, celebrities, coaches, doctors, teachers: adults in positions of authority who are accused of sexually assaulting minors. In many of the cases, the perpetrators were men the kids knew well and the children frequently felt unable to report it.
Parents may have a sense of panic that the problem is getting worse. But in fact, some of the cases now making news aren’t new at all: Some of the accusations against Roy Moore, the Republican running for Senate in Alabama, stem from the 1970s.
Over the past 25 years, the overall rate of reported cases of sexual abuse of children in the United States has actually declined by 65 percent, according to research conducted by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. Dr. Finkelhor attributes the decline to several factors, not the least of which are a growing awareness of the problem and an increase in education and training surrounding the identification and prevention of sexual assault.
“It’s not like we are having a new epidemic, but it looks like this new awareness is resulting in some improvement of the situation,” Dr. Finkelhor said.
An estimated 90 percent of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are people the child knows, with 30 percent being family members. Just 10 percent are strangers.
What can parents do to help keep their kids as safe as possible?
Teach Body Awareness Early
As your child is learning to talk, use the real names of body parts and genitals during diaper changes or bath time — and let them know that no one should touch their private parts other than a parent, caregiver or doctor. Further, in those instances, explain that the touch should be brief, and in the case of a doctor visit, a parent or other adult should be present.
“It’s never too early to teach children that their body belongs to them,” said Debby Herbenick, a professor of public health at Indiana University and a fellow at the Kinsey Institute. For instance, when you tickle your kids and they tell you to stop, you stop. The same applies to physical affection. “Sometimes parents think they have to make their kids hug or kiss relatives, but they don’t. You can suggest it but if the child says ‘no,’ just leave it at that, which teaches kids that how they give affection is their choice to make and not something they have to do to make somebody else feel good or happy — or do out of obligation,” Dr. Herbenick said.
Once your child requests privacy in the bathroom or while changing, grant it, said Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and author. “This communicates the concept of dignity, enables children to discern what’s appropriate and what’s not, and it teaches them independence and agency over their own bodies,” she said.
Help Kids Listen to Their Intuition and Act on It
“We tend to emphasize manners to kids, but when they are in a situation where they’re starting to feel uncomfortable, they often don’t feel they have the power to be rude and leave,” Dr. Mogel said.
So she suggests role-playing with your kids — pretend to be a neighbor with a litter of kittens to show them. “I’d remind them that they didn’t have to be polite or even answer if a situation felt wrong to them. They could simply run and report to a safe adult.”
Role-playing helps give children a script for awkward conversations, Dr. Finkelhor said. “Kids can find it hard to articulate, ‘I need to go home’ or ‘You can’t touch me that way,’ and having practiced saying those strong messages makes them more likely to be able to do it when needed.”
Dr. Finkelhor added that it’s necessary to talk with young people not only about the possibility of becoming victims but also about becoming offenders because population surveys have found that about half of sexual abuse offenders are juveniles.
Another thing parents can do: Assure your kids that their feelings are valid. “We live in a culture in which girls and boys tend to put down each other’s feelings,” said Rachel Simmons, co-founder of Girls Leadership. “It’s up to us to say, ‘I believe your feelings and you should too,’ because self advocacy can only happen when you authorize your own feelings.”
Make Clear You’re There for Support
It’s crucial to tell your child that if somebody makes her uncomfortable or touches her inappropriately, she can tell you and she won’t be in trouble. Often children have been told by the perpetrator that nobody will believe them if they tell, they will lose their social status, they will be blamed or that they will give up what may seem like a special relationship with the offender, said Dr. Tara Harris, medical director of the Pediatric Center of Hope at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.
Explain to your children that they can talk to you and you will not judge or blame them and will do all you can to protect them. And get a medical exam, both to help take care of the child and to record any evidence.
Reporting abuse can be particularly difficult for a child when the perpetrator is an admired member of the community (like a teacher or a coach) who may appear to have power over a child’s future.
“This is an opportunity for parents to say that I’m going to stand with you — and that no success and no opportunity is worth the violations that you’re experiencing,” Ms. Simmons said.
Be Aware of Your Child’s Behavior
“The nature of the newsfeed has made the probabilities of danger seem wildly skewed in parents’ minds and they imagine that if they let their child out of their sight for one second without implanting a GPS tracker in their head, they’re going to be assaulted, molested or abducted that day — and that is highly unlikely,” Dr. Mogel said.
Still, within reason, keep tabs on your child’s life. “I encourage parents to have the rule that phones and electronic devices stay in the parents’ room at night,” Dr. Harris said. “Kids should be sleeping, not playing on their phone at night; and that’s usually when people text kids in inappropriate ways.” Monitoring late-night communications can be a way to prevent questionable relationships from developing.
Also, find out what policies your child’s school or camp has regarding sexual assault. And urge kids to follow a buddy system. “There shouldn’t be one adult taking a child to a bathroom alone and there’s no reason your child can’t grab a friend to come along,” Dr. Harris said. “Let your school or camp know that your family follows this buddy system, which puts the organization on notice that you talk about body safety and your child knows about these things — and that’s an extra barrier that may slow someone down who might have targeted that child.”
If you do notice signs of distress in your child, take it seriously. “If your child suddenly becomes more withdrawn or is spending more time alone in their room, talk with them about it,” Dr. Herbenick said. “Let them know, ‘I’m noticing this about you and I want to make sure you’re O.K.’”If your child discloses an assault, don’t dismiss it. “One of the biggest factors in how a child recovers from what happened is the reaction they get when they tell an adult,” Dr. Harris said.
November 15, 2017