April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. For those of us who evaluate and treat this most vulnerable population of children, it provides an important opportunity to educate parents and other community members about potential warning signs, strategies and resources in an effort to eradicate this epidemic.
Child abuse refers to any intentional harm to a child under the age of 18, and can take many forms. The most common form of abuse is child neglect. This refers to a failure of a caretaker to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, affection, supervision, education or medical care. Physical abuse refers to when a child is purposely physically injured by a person in a caretaker role. Emotional abuse means injuring the child’s self-esteem or emotional well-being, including continually belittling or berating a child or isolating, ignoring or rejecting a child. Medical abuse is when someone purposely makes a child sick, requiring medical attention, putting the child in serious danger of injury and unnecessary medical care. Sexual abuse refers to any sexual activity with a child, including fondling, intercourse or involving a child in pornography.
Every parent has seen terrifying media reports about an innocent child being snatched from the neighborhood by a stranger and sexually victimized. In response to these horrific acts, the “stranger danger” movement in abduction and sexual abuse prevention was established, and the focus was primarily on teaching children to avoid strangers at any cost. Although stranger danger seemed like an easy way to teach our children basic personal safety, it actually put them at a disadvantage. Children who are taught stranger danger may be afraid to ask helpful strangers for assistance when they need it and not know how to recognize and avoid risky situations.
Instead of teaching stranger danger, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends the following when talking to your child about abduction prevention safety:
Don’t say: Never talk to strangers.
Say: You should not approach just anyone. If you need help, look for a uniformed police officer, a store clerk with a nametag or a parent with children.
Don’t say: Stay away from people you don’t know.
Say: It’s important for you to get my permission before going anywhere with anyone.
Don’t say: You can tell someone is bad just by looking at them.
Say: Pay attention to what people do. Tell me right away if anyone asks you to keep a secret, makes you feel uncomfortable or tries to get you to go with them.
It is a good idea to role-play different scenarios with your children and share helpful feedback about how they responded. Praise their efforts and provide the answer that would best ensure their safety. You will be amazed at how their responses will change as they develop problem-solving skills through the early school years. Tell them that if they are unsure about something someone asks them to do, they should always say, “I need to ask my parents.”
The truth is most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone well known to the child and occurs for a long time. Children are often groomed by their perpetrator, establishing an emotional connection. To reduce your children’s vulnerability, consider the following:
▪ Rather than the outdated concept of “good touch, bad touch,” teach your children that they have the right to refuse any touch they don’t like, including hugging, sitting on laps, back rubs or mouth kisses.
▪ From a young age, teach your children the correct names for body parts, including their private parts, and use these names.
▪ Private parts are often referred to as the parts of the body that your underwear or a bathing suit covers. However, remember that any touch the child doesn’t like, whether it is on his or her private part or not, is not OK.
▪ Instruct your children that no one should ask them to keep secrets or keep things private.
▪ Encourage an open dialogue with your children about their worries, their anatomy and how their bodies work, as well as topics such as dating violence, safe-sex practices and sexual orientation as they mature into adolescence.
Parenting a child is an enormous responsibility. In Florida, if you suspect your child — or any child — has been the victim of sexual abuse, call 1-800-96-ABUSE to share your concerns. If you prefer, your identity can remain anonymous. You can also seek guidance from Kristi House, Miami-Dade County’s center dedicated to providing prevention, education, treatment and coordination of services for all child victims of sexual abuse and their families, regardless of income. For more information about Kristi House, call 305-547-6800.
Susan K. Dandes, Ph.D., is a child psychologist and clinical director of the Child Protection Team, and Walter F. Lambert, M.D., is a pediatrician and medical director of the Child Protection Team at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.