How to Protect Your Children from Sexual Abuse

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This is an excerpt from Not Marked: Finding Hope and Healing After Sexual Abuse. In the aftermath of Dylan Farrow’s story of her own sexual abuse and attempts to remedy her situation, we once again see how important it is to be vigilant, connected, aware parents.

Before we look at ways to protect our kids, first we need to ask the question: Why do sexual predators prey on kids? Here is my unscientific list of 8 reasons, born of my own experience.

One: Because they can.

Usually a perpetrator has authority (older, a church leader, a parent, an adult) over the child and can use intimidation to keep the child silent. He may tell the child he’ll kill her or her parents, or make up other horrifying reasons why the child must not tell. Because of their authority (and that they’re often physically bigger than their victim), the child complies.

Two: Because (often) they’re acting out of their own difficult and unresolved past.

They may have been abused as children and now are flawed, broken people who haven’t been brave enough to chase healing. Without working through the pain of their own abuse and finding health, they often (not always) can’t help but abuse.

Three: Because many prefer to live in a culture of silence.

My babysitter chose to look the other way. (See my story here.) In some cases (not mine), church or civic leaders chose not to think about the abuse; instead they covered it up, heaping shame upon shame, favoring the predator to the one preyed upon. In this cauldron of silence where no one is brought to task or judgment, abuse continues and flourishes.

Four: Because predators (sometimes) can’t meet their emotional needs in normal relationships.

Because of injury,perpetrators have learned the only way to get close to someone is to dominate and humiliate and coerce. They falsely believe this constitutes a personal relationship.

Five: Because there is power in getting away with a crime.

The statistics about perpetrators being brought to actual justice plays this out. 97 of 100 rapists will get away with their crime. Therefore, each subsequent victim fuel invincibility and a need to continue. After all, they won’t (typically) be caught.

Six: Because they somehow believe that what they’re doing isn’t wrong.

They’ve minimized the crime to something trivial, and therefore don’t feel remorse. Or they rationalize their behavior. (This isn’t always the case. I’m sure there are perpetrators who know what they’re doing is wrong and feel tremendous guilt.) Some of these perpetrators are sociopaths and are incapable of feeling remorse.

Seven: Because the perpetrator has dehumanized the victim in his/her mind.

Instead of a child in need of protection and love, they’ve reduced the child to a vehicle for pleasure. This dehumanization can stem from mental disorders or violating their consciences over and over again until they believe those they abuse “deserve” it.

Eight: Because perpetrators live and believe in hedonism, that everything and everyone exists for their pleasure.

This is closely linked to narcissism. Those with extreme narcissistic tendencies (with narcissistic personality disorder) can’t see beyond their own world, wants and desires.

You’ll notice that few of these reasons have to do with culture or society. While I have no doubt that our highly sexualized culture contributes to the problem, I believe the true issue is the heart. All abusive behavior flows from a hard heart, from one choice that leads to many, many choices until the conscience is seared and no longer in operation.

Sexual abuse also thrives when we are silent, like the widespread cover-ups in the clergy abuse scandals. It thrives under the guise of cronyism, where a system must be preserved at any cost, even if that cost means victims are ignored, silenced or ridiculed.

Let’s open the doors on this abuse, let the clean air and sunshine in. Let’s tell the truth. For the sake of those abused and for the sake of the abusers. Covering it up doesn’t help. Blaming external factors like society is short sighted. Being honest and realistic about the problem is the pathway toward healing. At least that’s one victim’s thoughts.

In light of that, here are four keys I’ve observed that may help you as you love and parent your kids, protecting them, yet still letting them be kids.

Key One: Know your child.

The best defense in protecting your kids is knowing them well. Know their nuances; become a student of their behavior. In kindergarten when all hell swirled around me, I had a sudden change of behavior. A compliant child to a fault, I suddenly came home with a bad grade. Instead of asking questions and trying to figure out why a compliant child would morph to an uncooperative one, my relatives scolded me.

If your child has a sudden shift in behavior, take it seriously. Become fascinated about his/her issues. Love her through it. Chances are it won’t be because of a sexual predator, but knowing your child’s heart in any situation will only deepen your relationship.

Some symptoms of sexual abuse include:

  • Sudden problems at school—with either withdrawal or behavior problems
  • Fear of you leaving them—being clingy or crying when you drop your child off somewhere
  • Nightmares or night terrors
  • Insomnia
  • Incontinence, including sudden bedwetting and frequent urinary tract infections
  • Physical evidence (bleeding)
  • Sudden change in eating patterns (stops eating, eats too much)
  • Self harm (head banging, cutting, drug abuse)
  • An extreme need to be perfect
  • Fear of one particular person
  • Onset of depression and/or suicidal thoughts
  • Inappropriate sexual touch of themselves or others

Key Two: Be vigilant but not immobilized.

Be cautious about adults seeking alone time with your child. Watch your children and who they hang out with at the park, at church, in the neighborhood. Also be careful in church. Know the choir director, Awana leader, Sunday School teacher. Observe the ministry; offer to assist.

Remember that abusers seldom look like criminals or creeps. They often appear trustworthy and upstanding. Predators operate by getting kids (and often parents) to trust them. They offer gifts. They seem to love like Jesus does—to an extreme extent. They spend lots of time with kids, and work hard at currying favor with them.

There’s a tension here, though. Don’t become so immobilized that you never let your kids be kids. You don’t want to raise a fear-based child. Still, err on the side of trusting your instincts.

Key Three: Teach your kids about sex

Because of the overwhelming proliferation of pornography on the internet , you’ll need to talk about sex with your kids at an early age—in an age-appropriate manner. We let our kids’ questions lead our discussions. So if a child wants to know where babies came from, we shared in a matter-of-fact way—with accurate terms for parts of the sexual anatomy.

We tried to speak frankly and without embarrassment—not an easy thing to do, but important if you want to have open discussion and keep sex in the arena of normal conversation. The more you’re comfortable with talking about it, the more comfortable your kids will be in bringing you any concerns.

When you talk about sex, remember to talk about what is appropriate, safe touch and what is off limits. As you talk with your children about this, remind them that they have every right to say no, and say it with conviction. Tell them they can talk to you if they ever feel uncomfortable in someone else’s presence.

In the pre-teen years, let them know that perpetrators will use threats—that they might even say things like, “I’ll kill you if you tell.” Remind them that perpetrators love to lie about everything, and that their threats often don’t have teeth.

In our Christian homes in particular, our children are taught to obey those in authority over them. But we must also teach them that it is appropriate to say no if they’re feeling shame or pressure—or they’re experiencing unwanted touch. Tell them you’d rather them err on the side of caution (and saying too many “nos”) than worry about disappointing an adult.

In talking about sex, discuss secrets—that having secrets about someone hurting your child—should be told. Any secret that makes a child feel icky or ashamed is a secret that must be told.

Key Four: Entrust your kids to Jesus.

Often I hear parents ask me if I have danced over the line into hyper-vigilance with my kids in other areas of their lives. Although I have warned them about stranger danger and how to flee, and we’ve talked about inappropriate touch, I have also learned to entrust my kids to Jesus.

We need to be careful of falling into what I call “The Cult of Protectionism,” protecting their kids at any cost, never letting their children expand, grow, explore. We can lean toward controlling our kids, micromanaging their worlds. While we should protect our kids, we’re also role models, demonstrating a life lived in adventure, not fear. If we insulate our kids from every perceived harm, how will they experience their own adventure?

Pray for and with your children. Tell them about sex and unwanted touch. Warn them about predators. Empower their “no” muscle. Realize that we live in a fallen, broken world.

No matter how vigilant we are, we can’t protect them from everything. And God doesn’t always protect them either, which is hard to swallow, difficult to work through. I wish I could promise that if we pray and protect and warn, no harm will befall our dear kids. What we can do is create a haven-like home where our kids feel protected and free to share their lives with us. We can foster an environment of truth and authenticity where our kids know they can entrust us with their secrets.