Partnering with Parents to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse
Research supports the effectiveness of parental involvement in personal safety education. Several studies have shown that parents, when provided with developmentally appropriate materials for their children and instruction and support from schools, can be very effective instructors of personal safety (Burgess and Wurtele, 1998; Wurtele, 1993; Wurtele, Currier, Gillispie, and Franklin, 1991, 1992; Wurtele, Kast, and Melzer, 1992).
Furthermore, research found that children who had received CSA prevention instruction from their parents (in addition to information they received at school) had substantially more knowledge about the topic, made more use of self-protection strategies, were better able to limit the seriousness of assaults, and were more likely to disclose abuse when it occurred (Finkelhor, Asdigian, and Dziuba-Leatherman, 1995).
Parental Support of CSA Prevention Education
A parent's first step in supporting a school-based CSA prevention program is simply to allow his or her child's participation. Unfortunately, parents who have concerns about these programs or believe that they are harmful may not allow their children to take part. However, the research shows that children can learn personal safety skills without becoming anxious, acting out, or becoming confused about appropriate touch.
Some parents believe that their children are at low risk for sexual exploitation (Collins, 1996) or that children are too young to understand the topic (Wurtele, Kvaternick, and Franklin, 1992). Yet young children are especially vulnerable to this type of abuse. Their smaller size and dependent status, along with their difficulty in recognizing, resisting, and reporting abuse, put them at greater risk for sexual victimization.
There are other parents who define child molesters as "social misfits," (Conte and Fogarty, 1989) "dirty old men," (Morrison and Greene, 1992) or strangers (Berrick, 1988). Parents who hold these beliefs may think CSA prevention education isn't necessary if their child never has contact with these types of people. But research tells us that children are most often victimized by family members, substitute caregivers, or trusted adults who function "normally" in society.
Reinforcing Personal Safety Skills at Home
Most educators will inform parents of the CSA prevention lessons they're teaching at school, which gives parents the chance to help clarify lesson concepts and correct children's misconceptions.
For example, the most effective CSA prevention programs teach children a safety rule about identifying safe and unsafe touches. Parents can reinforce and help children better understand the touching-safety rule in a variety of ways. They can practice "what if" scenarios with children, starting out with simple questions (for example, "What if you found a nickel on the street?") before moving onto more involved questions to reinforce basic personal safety skills (for example, "What if your friend wanted to show you his father's gun? What if you wanted to ride your bicycle but couldn't find your helmet?").
In the TALKING ABOUT TOUCHING program, children learn "a bigger person shouldn't touch your private body parts except to keep you clean and healthy." Parents can ask their child "what if" questions related to this rule (for example, "What if a babysitter tried to touch your private parts? What if your private parts were hurt? Would it be okay for a doctor to touch them?").
Such questions are helpful in teaching children to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touches. And letting children say "no" to adults and older children—even if it's only to decline a friendly hug—allows them to set their own boundaries and empowers them to say "no" to people who want to break the touching-safety rule.
Parents can also instruct children to tell them (and other adults) if someone breaks the touching rule. When parents discuss CSA prevention with children and give developmentally appropriate answers to questions about sexuality, children will learn that their parents are approachable, and they will be more likely to disclose inappropriate touch.
Reprinted with the permission of the Committee for Children. © 2007 Committee for Children.
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