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Parenting to prevent sexual abuse

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  December 10, 2012 07:11 AM

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In the wake of the recent news that a known sexual offender raped and molested children for years, many of them in a daycare north of Boston, it's hard not to be scared as a parent. You can't help thinking: could this happen to my child?

It certainly brings home the fact that if your child is in daycare you should be asking lots of questions--not just when you choose the daycare, but on a regular basis. You should be sure that the daycare is licensed (the one where this happened wasn't); the Department of Early Education and Childcare has an online database and you can also call if you want more information. You should ask lots of questions about how and with whom your child spends his or her day, get references and have ongoing conversations with other parents, and be alert for anything that doesn't seem right to you.

But there are other things that parents can do to help prevent sexual abuse--and make it more likely that they will know if (God forbid) something does happen:

Talk to your kids. This sounds obvious and silly, but many parents actually don't spend all that much time each day talking to their children. It takes patience, and time. It takes building a culture within your family of daily sharing and listening. It's very worth the effort; not only will it make you closer as a family, but it will make it easier and more natural for your children to tell you about anything that happens to them.

Teach your child about body parts. Do it in the bathtub or at other natural times of nakedness. Teach them the actual names; it will help if a child ever needs to explain anything. Make sure they know which parts are their private parts, which nobody should look at or touch except the people you say are okay. Which leads into...

Talk about good and bad touches. This is an obvious offshoot of talking about private parts, but bad touches don't necessarily involve touching breasts or genitals. A bad touch is any touch that makes a child feel uncomfortable--and those are the instincts you want to teach your child. Which leads into...

Teach them that no grownup should ask them to keep a secret. So much of abuse and sexual predation begins with secrets, and as with touches, they aren't always sexual. So teach your child that grownups shouldn't be asking children to keep secrets. (You may end up finding out about birthday or Christmas presents you weren't meant to, but that could be an added benefit.)

I get that these are really hard conversations to have. Don't do it all at once--do it in bits and pieces as moments come up. And do it with hugs and reassurances that you and all the trusted grownups around them are always working to keep them safe. The idea should be to empower your children, not scare them.

Be watchful, and trust your instincts. Pay attention to changes in behavior or offhand comments or things that happen that seem odd, and ask questions. Be a little paranoid. I'm not advocating total paranoia, because a. most people in the world are good, don't want to raise a paranoid and anxious child and will make yourself crazy. But keep your antennae up, and if something doesn't seem right to you, don't ignore it.

There's no guarantee of safety, obviously. As we've been hearing in the coverage about John Burbine, while there were some suspicions, many people had no idea at all what was happening. That's the thing about predators like him: they do a remarkably good job of hiding what they do. 

But If you do these things starting when your child is small, and work to maintain ongoing conversations and support when they go through adolescence, you will go a long way toward keeping your child safe.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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