Keeping Our Families Safe
Marti Wibbels, MS, LMHC
This week, I talked about sexual trauma on Christian radio—offering ideas to help keep children, adolescents, and adults safe from sexual predators. I wish I could simply ignore this painful topic, but I know too much. I knew nothing about it when I first met a survivor in the 1970s. When she asked me to help her, I felt I had nothing to offer. Because I cared about her, I learned—and kept learning, eventually writing four books and becoming a licensed therapist to help people heal from all forms of trauma.
Approximately one in three women and one in five men experience sexual trauma by age 18. According to RAINN, every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, and every 9 minutes, that victim is a child. More than 80% (some research indicates over 90%) of childhood sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child.
Internalizing undeserved shame, survivors often numb their pain with alcohol, drugs, activities, or a relentless quest for success. Even when they ignore it, the pain is still there, impacting the core of survivors’ beings, including five core areas: Competence – Safety – Identity – Purpose – Belonging.
How can you tell if your child is being or has been sexually traumatized? A few of the many indications of sexual trauma include the simultaneous presence of behavioral and attitude changes, such as:
- Persistent insomnia, nightmares (intrusive dreams)
- Overeating or undereating, binge eating or purging
- Physical symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, encopresis or enuresis (see your physician regarding physical concerns since many have other possible causes)
- Self-stimulation; other sexual behaviors; knowing sexual terminology
- Consistently being anxious; easily startled; depression
- “Numbing out”/freezing emotions
- Addictive behaviors
- Self-harming behaviors such as cutting, head bashing, etc.
- Anger, rage, or bitterness; being easily irritated
- Afraid of or avoiding activities they used to enjoy
- Being in a continual state of reactivity
Perpetrators are experts at manipulating not only their victims but their families, infiltrating churches, schools, Bible studies, and sports teams, finding places where people will trust them to be alone with their children. Because they are likely already known to your child (and to you!), predators rapidly build trust, steadily grooming children to do what they suggest. Once alone, they might whisper, “This is our special game. This is our secret.”
Teach your children to say “NO” and tell you about anyone who asks them to keep secrets, explaining, “We don’t keep secrets from our family.” Repetitively discuss what touches are safe—and what are not. You can keep it simple (“we don’t let anyone touch the parts of our body covered by our swimsuits”), repeatedly reminding children to tell you or another safe adult if anyone does something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Help them see they don’t have to “obey” an adult who wants to do something they don’t feel comfortable about—like tickling them or touching them inappropriately.
A child’s confusion becomes incredible, since some touches feel good, but inwardly they feel horribly ashamed, knowing instinctively this isn’t good (even though the perpetrator tells them it is). Luke 17:2 describes God’s opinion of hurting a child. Jesus said, It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. The person who hurts children (or anyone else, for that matter) is the one sinning, yet the victim of sexual trauma blames himself or herself.
Parents and grandparents need to be proactive:
- Spend time with your children, learning their habits, observing them at play. Use books, such as My Body Is Special and Belongs to Me! by Berenzweig and Benjoseph, to help them understand safe touch and safe people.
- Keep computers and other technology, such as phones and iPads, in an open place where you can see where your child is going online (child pornographers know how to infiltrate sites children frequent).
- If you see several behavioral changes in a child such as stuttering, self-stimulation, self-harm, isolation, or fear, observe your child even more closely than before. [To know how to help children or adolescents who are self-harming, you could read Inside a Cutter’s Mind by Clark and Henslin.] If the concerns persist, it could be time to find professional help.
- Don’t ask directly if someone is abusing them (if abuse has happened, it will be difficult for your child to talk, since perpetrators know how to offload shame onto victims). If they’ve been alone with someone and you feel uncomfortable, calmly invite your child to draw pictures or play together, go for a walk (etc.), helping him or her feel safe enough to talk.
- Love your children, demonstrating healthy touch and creatively, repetitively showing them how precious they are.
- Teach children about their private parts, using correct anatomical terms, and discuss with them that those parts are special, designed by God for marriage. Explain that we don’t let anyone touch our private parts—anything covered by our swimsuits— except when parents/caregivers change diapers or doctors help with our health, etc.
- Do not allow sleepovers. Even if you think you know the family where your children are staying, you can’t possibly know all others—cousins, friends, neighbors—who might visit during an overnight stay.
If you are involved in teaching, coaching, children’s or youth ministry, in any way working with children or adolescents in Florida (and in many other states), you are a mandated reporter. What that means is this: if you suspect any form of abuse, you are required to contact the abuse hotline at 800.96ABUSE (800.962.2873).