Talking with your little one about their safety and knowing where they are/who they’re with at all times are important to keeping them safe.
What should I keep in mind?
Abuse usually happens by someone you/your kid know. Abuse by someone you know (extended family, caretakers, etc.) is far more common than abuse by a stranger in the park or on the street. That doesn’t mean you should prevent your kid from ever talking to anyone (that would be impossible, anyway). But it does mean it’s important to teach your child what’s OK and what’s not OK for adults, older children, and teenagers to do to them. Teaching them to come to you if anything feels off can help you catch abuse early or before it even happens.
Be careful about who you trust to spend time alone with your kid. Know where your kid is and what adults are there at all times. Take steps to find out the reputation of any professional caregivers you hire (daycare centers, babysitters, coaches, teachers, etc.) by asking for references, background checks, or appropriate licensing.
Listen to your gut, and above all, listen to your kid. This can be especially difficult if the person your kid feels unsafe or uncomfortable with is someone you love or are close with. But children very rarely make up stories about abuse, so if they tell you your significant other, niece/nephew, cousin, etc. is abusing them or making them feel uncomfortable, believing them is so important for their healing and stopping the abuse.
What can I do to help prevent my child from being abused?
Anything that takes advantage of a child or hurts a child can be considered abuse. There are many kinds of abuse, including physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse can happen to any child in any family — and can happen to children as young as the preschool years. That reality can feel scary, but there are things you can do to lower the chances that it’ll happen to your kid.
1. Teach your child the words for their body parts and be clear about who is allowed to touch or see those body parts. Only you (and any co-parents and caretakers) if you’re helping them bathe or get dressed, and their doctor when it’s about their health (and only with parent permission) should see or touch their genitals.
2. Say “Tell me right away if someone hurts you — or if someone makes you feel unsafe or weird.” Be specific. You can say, “Tell me right away if someone makes you feel unsafe or weird, and especially if they ask you to take your clothes off, kiss you, or touch you in a way you don’t like or feels wrong.”
3. Let them know that they’ll never be in trouble for telling you — and believe them if they do. People who sexually abuse children will tell them a million lies to keep the abuse a secret. Make sure your kid knows that any touch that someone asks them to keep secret is not OK, and that they should tell you right away so you can protect them. Reassure them that they won’t be in trouble for telling you.
The only way you can know if something is off is to be there for your kid on a regular basis. Talk with them about their day, listen to them, and believe their stories. Having ongoing communication with any caregivers will help you keep an eye on any signs of abuse they might see, too.
Be aware of some warning signs of abuse:
- unexplained injuries
- behavior changes
- becoming withdrawn or upset
- abnormal bed-wetting
- symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Don’t ignore your gut if something feels off. Sit down with your kid somewhere private where you know they feel safe. Ask them open ended questions, and believe whatever they tell you.
What do I do if my child was abused?
Finding out that someone abused your child is nothing short of a nightmare. Know that help is available, and that you don’t have to go through this alone.
You may find out because of something your preschooler says, or you may notice warning signs of abuse like unexplained injuries, behavior changes, becoming withdrawn or upset, nightmares, bed-wetting, or symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you don’t see one of these signs, but something is giving you a bad feeling in your gut, listen to that feeling.
Sit down with your kid somewhere quiet and private and give them your full attention. Listen, ask open-ended questions, and trust whatever they tell you — even if it sounds crazy or involves someone you know and love. Remember, most abusers are known to the family. Remind them that you love them no matter what, that you’re so glad they told you, and while you may get upset, they’re not in trouble. Abuse is never the fault of the victim (even if they think it’s a consensual or even loving relationship), and your preschooler needs to be reminded of that.
Once your preschooler has talked to you about what’s going on, get help. You owe it to your child and other children in your community to keep them safe from abuse — and in many places you’re required by law to report abuse.
Seek help from police, child protective services (CPS), or a children’s advocacy center as soon as you can. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network or the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline are good starting places that can help you figure out your next steps.
Life after abuse
The healing process after abuse can be a long and difficult journey. Your little one needs you to do your best to be supportive, protective, and encouraging. Make sure your child understands that what happened is NOT their fault — nobody deserves abuse, no matter what. Remind them daily that you love them. All children need to hear that, but especially those who have been abused.
Child abuse — whether it’s sexual, emotional, physical, or psychological abuse — can change people’s lives, families, and communities forever. For you as a parent, it can mean cutting ties with someone close to you and your family, or even someone within your family, which can feel almost impossible. All of this can be overwhelming, so find support for yourself. Seek help from loved ones, as well as counseling, therapy, or a support group if you can. Getting help for yourself can help you focus on being your little one’s #1 advocate during this difficult time.