Monday, July 19, 2010

Don't Freak Out

...but I'm going to share the most important information I just learned about keeping our children safe from sexual abuse.

***Because the statistics show that a third of women and fifteen percent of men are survivors of sexual abuse, it is possible that some of you reading this blog are survivors. I want to acknowledge that though this material is sensitive, there is information here you can use to keep your own children safe.***

(For more information, please visit Feather Berkower's website:  There you'll find statistics, resources, articles, and information on upcoming workshops.  She also coauthored a book that will be published in the next few months: Off Limits: A Parent's Guide to Keeping Children Safe from Sexual Abuse).

In high school, I learned that sexual abuse happened to people I know.  In college, I became aware that it was not a rare exception but an alarmingly prevalent issue for countless children.  Ten years later, I look around my life and find it hard to know off the top of my head which list would be longer: that of friends who escaped childhood unaffected by sexual abuse or that of survivors I know.  Child sexual abuse is real.  It happens every day to kids all around us.  And it is not selective: socioeconomics, degrees, Pottery Barn homes, and loving parents do not make a child immune.

Yesterday, however, I learned information and skills that will increase the odds that my children will reach their eighteenth birthday without experiencing it.  And I feel compelled to share this resource and just a few of the things we took away yesterday with anyone who will listen in hopes that more children will become "off limits" to sexual offenders.

After two years of missing this parenting workshop due to scheduling conflicts, I finally had the opportunity to attend Feather Berkower's "Parenting Safe Children" class on Saturday, a workshop designed to educate and empower parents--and other adults or caregivers--to keep kids safe from sexual abuse.  I'd heard amazing reviews about Feather's presentation from everyone who had attended previously, and I knew I needed to invest this time for the sake of my kids.

This is not your average parenting workshop.  Feather addressed with tact and empathy and poise and clear, thorough information an issue many people are afraid to even acknowledge.  Though the content, by nature, is difficult and, at times, uncomfortable, Feather managed to lead us through our time together without leaving us queasy or paranoid.  Rather, Josh and I left confident, feeling empowered that we had the information and skills we need both to empower our kids and also to "filter" the people and places in their lives to give them the best possible opportunity to be safe, to become "off limits" to sexual offenders.

The statistics around child sexual abuse are staggering--I'll share just a few of many. From her thorough presentation we learned:

*1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys are sexually abused by the time they're 18
*40-50% of offenders are juveniles (this includes teenagers as well as young children sexually offending other children)
*of adult offenders, 95% are married men with children
*by an overwhelming percentage (80-95%, depending on the study), most offenders are known to children: offenders are relatives, neighbors, family friends, babysitters, coaches, etc.
*these statistics are based on incidents that are reported: imagine how many more go unreported...

Though most child sexual abuse is committed by males, the stereotype of the dirty old man lurking in the playground bushes is a far cry from reality.  It is far more likely that our children will encounter offenders on a play date or at school or in their very own homes in the form of friends or loved ones.  Remarkably, Feather described the types of individuals likely to offend with compassion, many of whom learned their behaviors when they themselves were abused (it should be stated clearly, though, that not all who offend were abused and not all who are abused go on to offend).  Still, the familiarity of most offenders is what makes this problem so insidious.

But we are not powerless against it.  Feather reminded us several times that we can equip our children to make them significantly less vulnerable to abusers.

After leading us through the statistics around the incidence of child sexual abuse and the characteristics of abusers, she outlined the qualities of children who are vulnerable.  She described the "grooming" process most offenders use to gain the trust of children and their parents so that we could recognize warning signs or red flags, and she described the qualities of safe kids and safe homes.  Did you know that one quality that makes a child more vulnerable to sexual abuse is not knowing the anatomically correct terms of their "private parts"?  We've chosen to teach our kids the names of all their body parts, but I'd occasionally had nightmares that they would blurt these terms out in the middle of the grocery store or school or a dinner party, embarrassing all of us.  Now, I realize that this knowledge, whether it leaks out in public or not, is a gift and may even communicate to the ill-intentioned around us, "I'm off limits.  Someone's talking to me about things that matter."

Feather also discussed helpful and unhelpful responses we could provide to our children should they ever disclose that they have experienced abuse.  In this case, calm, loving reassurance is key: "Thank you so much for telling me.  I love you no matter what.  This isn't your fault.  I'll do whatever I can to keep you safe and get help."  In fact, the mantra of the afternoon, whatever the situation, seemed to be, "Thank you so much for telling me.  Let's talk about it" or "Thank you for asking--that's a great question.  Let's talk about it."  Though the thought of facing this situation has always terrified me--creates a pit in my stomach that just aches when I think about it--I now feel  better prepared to handle it in a way that would allow the healing process to begin right there and hopefully not exacerbate an already difficult situation.

In giving us tools to protect our children, Feather gave us tools to be better parents in general.  She encouraged us to really listen to our kids, to hear beyond the words they use to what they might be trying to communicate, to ask questions that invite discussion and to respond in ways that show our children we are available to talk about whatever they may be processing in their worlds.  She gave us permission to be truly honest with our kids--at age appropriate levels--when asked difficult questions about sexuality, our bodies, and other topics we may be tempted to put off until later.  And she gave us principles, "Body-Safety Rules," that we could take home and begin using with our kids immediately.

We had our first conversation with Ben about "body safety" that night at dinner (Abby had gone to bed early, but we will share with her as the opportunities arise).  We shared with Ben where we had been and told him we had learned some important things about keeping him and Abby safe.  Over the course of dinner, we reinforced concepts he already knew ("You are the boss of your body," "You are allowed to have privacy when using the bathroom or getting dressed"), clarified rules we've implied or assumed he knew by talking about them openly ("No one is allowed to touch your private parts unless they are helping you get clean or unless your private parts are sick or hurt and a doctor needs to help them," "You are not allowed to touch anyone else's private parts," "You have our permission to say 'No' and disobey if a grown up ever breaks a body safety rule"), changed some rules in order to make our home safer ("We don't have any secrets in our family, ever.  We may have surprises like birthday gifts or special events, but if anyone ever tells you not to tell Mommy or Daddy something, then you need to tell us right away.  There shouldn't be anything you can't tell us"), and assured him as much as we could in one setting that we will always love him no matter what, that he will never get in trouble for telling us something related to body-safety rules, and that he can talk to us about anything.

Ben, our rules- and boundary-lover, embraced these new tenets.  "If someone ever tells me not to tell you something, I'll say, 'No, we don't have secrets in our family,'" he told me.  We began playing "What if" games as we got ready for bed.

"What if a babysitter tells you you can stay up and watch a movie way past your bedtime but only if you don't tell Mommy and Daddy?" I'd ask.

"I'd say, 'No, I can't do that,' or I'll say, 'Okay,' but then tell you the next day," Ben said.

I don't harbor illusions that he is now immune to the grooming ploys of an offender, but if we continue to have these kinds of conversations; if we continue to talk openly about our bodies and these body-safety rules; if we take advantage of the "teachable moments" in a day related to privacy, secrets, and body safety; if we foster closeness and provide plenty of attention and affection within our family--I am hopeful that if a situation arises--and I pray it doesn't--but if it does, our kids will have a gut reaction that tells them something isn't right and will feel empowered and entitled to say no, to communicate overtly or perhaps even unknowingly that they are "off limits."

I highly recommend Feather's workshop.  There was so much more information than I could possibly include here.  If you are local, I will be hosting one of her workshops sometime in the next few months for neighbors and friends and would love for you to join us.  If you do not have the opportunity to attend, you can find more information and resources at her website or you can order her book, which we will be adding to our collection of parenting materials as soon as it's out.

We spend so much time teaching our children about safety: to stay away from hot stoves, to wear helmets when riding bikes, to wash their hands before eating, to be aware of "stranger danger."  But the body-safety principles we learned yesterday may be the most valuable "safety"instruction we ever provide them.  At one point, Feather asked, "What if every parent, every adult engaged in a child's life, had access to this information?"  It's a fascinating question.  Could we virtually eliminate child sexual abuse?  Even if we didn't eliminate it, how many more children could be protected?

It's a worthy goal.  Will you join me?

(To find sources for this information, please visit Feather Berkower's website:

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