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What you can do to help protect children from abuse

I've gotten a couple questions from people who have been wondering how parent/teachers/caregivers and adults in general can better protect kids from being abused, and what they should do if they suspect a child in their lives has been abused. I hope the following post will help start provide some insight and guidance. Please feel free to share.

Oftentimes it's very difficult to spot a child who has been abused. Feelings of shame and guilt operate to keep a child from speaking up about what is happening to them. Abusers coerce, cajole, and threaten their victims into remaining silent. This is especially true when both the child and his or her family know the abuser. For those who are concerned about how to help protect children, or if you think you may know a child that has been abused, I suggest the keeping in mind the following:

1. Keep an eye out for drastic behavioral changes, either extreme acting out or withdrawal that is out of character. If you see something worrisome, let the child know that they are welcome to come to you to speak about anything. Try not to push or directly confront a child with your suspicions. Doing so can overwhelm and trigger feelings of shame and guilt. Patiently let children know that you will listen, and not dismiss any questions or concerns they have. Don't give up on a kid if you really think something is wrong though. The mother of Victim #1 in the Sandusky indictment is a hero for trusting her instincts that something wasn't right, and doing what was needed to protect her child.

2. One very important thing a parent or caregiver can do is to keep repeating to their children that they can always come forward with any questions, fears, and worries, and that they will not be turned away, blamed, or punished for doing so. Children need to be empowered to believe in themselves, and to have the courage to speak up when they think something is wrong. For that to happen, it's vitally important that they learn to have confidence in themselves. Telling a child they are special once in a while is not enough. Helping children overcome their doubts and fears requires listening to them and giving them the message that they are worthy of being loved, worthy of being heard, worthy of being protected, and worthy of being cared for. This is the foundation kids need, and, sadly, too rarely get.

3. I would encourage anyone in a position of authority to take very seriously their duty to protect children. It's common for people to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to vulnerable children. Oftentimes it's easier to pretend that we didn't hear or didn't see what we thought at first. Some people simply refuse to believe that boys can be sexually abused at all. Many victims already live in fear and are hesitant to ask for help in the first place. Ignoring or rebuffing a child who comes forward with a story of abuse invariably drives them further into their own shell and magnifies the damage that has been done. Adults have a duty to do what they can to help vulnerable children. A child cannot be expected to protect themselves from the machinations of an abusive predator well versed in the art of grooming. The idea that it is solely a child's responsibility to protect themselves is a harmful message that drives more children into the traps of predators.

4. Predators seek out children who have already had their ability to trust other people damaged. These children become easy targets. One of the best things you can do to help children is to be someone who shows by their own behavior that adults can be trusted not to take advantage of children and prey on their weaknesses. Show kids that they are valued for who and what they are and what they can achieve. Give them the tools they need to develop a strong sense of self. Help children find a sense of confidence in themselves. And if a child comes to you with a story of being abused, please LISTEN to them. The most important thing any of us can do to help is to listen and believe a child who is coming to you for help. If you know a child who has been abused and are unsure of what to do, contact your local rape crisis center and ask to speak to a counselor.

5. Teach your children about safe touching. Let them know that anytime they feel uncomfortable with the way someone is touching them, it is important that they stay away from that person and that they ask for help from an adult whom they can trust. Even if the person is telling them that they care about them, or telling them they should enjoy the touch, or the game, it's important to empower children to trust their own feelings. If it feels wrong or bad or uncomfortable, no matter who is touching them, it is okay to ask for help.

Christopher M Anderson
Vice President, Malesurvivor
www.malesurvivor.org