How you can protect your child against sex abuse

By Smriti Daniel

This, the third in our series on parenting with parenting coach Dr. Maya Cockeram, is something she feels particularly passionate about. Offering up strategies, she answers the questions on how and when our children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse.

If you want to know more, you can find Maya on Mums in Colombo ( You can also sign up for her December session on ‘My Body Belongs to Me’ which is specially geared toward helping parents understand how to best protect their children from sexual predators.

Does child sex abuse occur more often than we think it does? What are some of the forms it can take?

Childhood sexual abuse is a silent epidemic. A projected 20% of our boys and 10% of our girls in Sri Lanka (National Child Protection Authority) will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday but only about 10% of abused children tell anyone.

Child sexual abuse is any form of sexual activity by an adult to or with a child, or even by one child to another – it covers the spectrum from rape to unwanted contact and even exhibitionism.

Every child is potentially vulnerable to sexual abuse. Similarly perpetrators too come in all sizes and shapes.

Who are the most common perpetrators? What kind of situations does it most commonly occur in?

Most children are abused by someone they know and trust. Only 10% of perpetrators are strangers to the child. In most cases the perpetrator is male, regardless of whether the victim is a boy or girl. The perception that most perpetrators are gay men is a myth.

Similarly, not all perpetrators are adults. Sexual abuse can occur anywhere, at any time. A common situation is where one adult and one child are alone in a ‘safe’ place such as the home, school or friend’s house. The abuser will typically use threats, shaming, blaming the child and other methods to stop the child from telling anyone about the abuse.

What is the impact on the child?

Sexual abuse robs children of their childhood and creates a loss of trust, feelings of guilt and self-abusive behaviour. It can lead to antisocial behaviour, depression, identity confusion, eating disorders, self-inflicted injuries, loss of self-esteem and other serious emotional problems. It can also lead to difficulty with intimate relationships later in life. A frequent problem with sexual abuse is that the child engages in more sexualized behavior compared to children who are not sexually abused. Trust often becomes a very big issue. The impact of sexual abuse on children is vast and varied.

Even if your child does not tell you directly, are there subtle signs parents should look out for that might indicate a child has been sexually abused?

The possibility of abuse should be investigated if a child shows a number of these symptoms: being overly affectionate or knowledgeable in a sexual way inappropriate to the child's age. Medical problems such as chronic itching, pain in the genitals. Extreme reactions, such as depression, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, running away, overdoses, anorexia.

Personality changes or regressing to younger behaviour patterns such as thumb sucking or bringing out discarded cuddly toys. Sudden loss of appetite or compulsive eating. Being isolated or withdrawn. Inability to concentrate. Lack of trust or desire to avoid spending time alone with someone they know well. Starting to wet again, day or night/nightmares. Becoming worried about clothing being removed. Suddenly drawing sexually explicit pictures.

At what age should parents consider first telling their children? How does one convey the message without unduly frightening the child?

Parents need to learn the facts, minimize the opportunity and learn to talk openly about sex and sexual abuse to their children. It may be a little difficult at first, but it is crucial. Begin as soon as you think your child is old enough to understand. Talking to your child about sexual abuse and personal safety should be an ongoing process. Be casual and keep it simple. Choose a time when the child feels safe – such as when the child is playing or you are eating together.

When they talk is not as important as what is said. Tell your child he or she has the right to say “no” if someone wants to touch them in any way that makes them feel uncomfortable, afraid or confused. Help them understand that there are parts of their body which are private. Encourage them to trust their feelings and to tell you if they ever feel threatened.

Children need to know that the safety rules about touching apply all the time, not just with strangers. Remember that children learn best when given simple rules to follow. Include touching rules when you talk about other types of safety.

Explain the difference between good and bad secrets. Help the child understand that it’s OK to have a secret about something like a surprise birthday party, but not about things that make them feel unhappy or uncomfortable.

Do children often struggle with an idea of what they should and shouldn’t allow adults to do? Are girls and boys equally at risk?

Unfortunately, in our culture, a child’s body is not perceived to be his own. Strangers think nothing of coming up to a child, pinching their cheeks, or even picking them up without asking them if they can. Parents accept all this as the norm. We hold children down against their will when doing a medical procedure on them, rather than explaining what needs to be done and why.

These actions lead children to believe their body belongs to any adult who wants to hold hug or touch them irrespective of if they like it or not. We have to change our attitudes. So next time when you get the urge to say, ‘give the aunty a kiss darling’…hold back. Say something like ‘say good-bye to the aunty, please’. Children can be respectful of adults without being made to kiss or hug them.

As a nation we are far more protective of our girls than our boys. But unlike the western world, in Sri Lanka more boys get abused than girls. This is probably because of us keeping our girls more protected. Many people are unaware that boys are at risk too.

How important is it that parents should have this conversation in the first place? Is it possible to never talk to your child about it, and still protect them against it?

As parents, one of our many roles and responsibilities includes teaching children to be safe. Talking about tough issues is also part of that responsibility. And sexual abuse has to be one of the most difficult topics to discuss with your kids. Unfortunately, it's also a necessary one.

I do not think it’s possible for us to never talk about it and protect them from it unless we can be with them 24 hours a day 7 days a week 365 days of the year till they are 18 years old!

A quote from a sex abuser I read said “show me a child who knows nothing about sex and I will show you my first victim.” I think that says it all don’t you?

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