Partnering with Parents to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse (page 3)
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.
Detecting and Responding to Abuse
Parents, because of their close relationships with children (and their children's friends), are in an excellent position to detect sexual abuse. Early detection can help a child receive assistance to prevent the long-term impact of ongoing CSA. Parents can educate themselves about the signs and symptoms of CSA and learn how to respond appropriately to a child's disclosure. Nonsupportive reactions to disclosed abuse (for example, "Don't make up stories like that” or “Why did you let him do it?") can have significantly negative effects on victims.
Reducing Risk Factors
Parents can reduce offenders' access to their children by increasing supervision—knowing where their children are, who they're with, and what they're doing. Given that the largest percentage of offenders are people in positions of authority (coaches, clergymen, and so on), parents should be wary of adults (and teenagers) who prefer the company of children and want to spend a lot of time alone with them.
Other ways to reduce a child's risk include rearranging sleeping conditions that might be conducive to inappropriate sexual behaviors between family members and checking daycare and babysitting arrangements.
If children are old enough to use the Internet, parents need to establish safety rules for its use. Children should know that they should never give out personal information (name, address, age, phone number), send pictures without permission, or agree to meet face-to-face with someone they've met online.
There are other possible protective factors that might reduce the risk of abuse: communicating openly within the family and discouraging secrets, discussing healthy sexuality, preventing a child's exposure to sexually explicit media, and stressing the importance of personal body safety and privacy in the home. Moreover, parents need to be reassured that nonsexual touching is a natural and essential part of parenting.
By Sandy Wurtele, Ph.D.
Dr. Sandy Wurtele is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.
Berrick, J. D. (1988). "Parental Involvement in Child Abuse Training: What Do They Learn?" Child Abuse & Neglect, 12, 543–553.
Burgess, E. S., and Wurtele, S. K. (1998). "Enhancing Parent-Child Communication About Sexual Abuse: A Pilot Study." Child Abuse & Neglect, 22, 1167–1175.
Calvert, J. F. Jr., and Munsie-Benson, M. (1999). "Public Opinion and Knowledge About Childhood Sexual Abuse in a Rural Community." Child Abuse & Neglect, 23, 671–682.
Collins, M. E. (1996). "Parents' Perceptions of the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse and Their Protective Behaviors: Findings from a Qualitative Study." Child Maltreatment, 1, 53–64.
Conte, J. R., and Fogarty, L. A. (1989). "Attitudes on Sexual Abuse Prevention Programs: A National Survey of Parents." (Available from J. R. Conte, School of Social Work, University of Washington, Mailstop 3549000, 4101 15th Avenue NE, Seattle, WA 98195-6299.)
Davis, M. K., and Gidycz, C. A. (2000). "Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Programs: A Meta-Analysis." Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 29, 257–265.
Finkelhor, D., Asdigian, N., and Dziuba-Leatherman, J. (1995). "The Effectiveness of Victimization Prevention Instruction: An Evaluation of Children's Responses to Actual Threats and Assaults." Child Abuse & Neglect, 19, 141–153.
MacIntyre, D., and Carr, A. (2000). "Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse: Implications of Programme Evaluation Research." Child Abuse Review, 9, 183–199.
Morrison, S., and Greene, E. (1992). "Juror and Expert Knowledge of Child Sexual Abuse." Child Abuse & Neglect, 16, 595–613.
Wurtele, S. K. (1993). "Enhancing Children's Sexual Development Through Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Programs." Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 19, 37–46.
Wurtele, S. K. (in press). "School-Based Child Sexual Abuse Prevention." Chapter to appear in P. A. Schewe (Ed.), Preventing Violence in Relationships: Interventions Across the Life Span. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wurtele, S. K., Currier, L. L., Gillispie, E. I., and Franklin, C. F. (1991). "The Efficacy of a Parent-Implemented Program for Teaching Preschoolers Personal Safety Skills." Behavior Therapy, 22, 69–83.
Wurtele, S. K., Gillispie, E. I., Currier, L. L., and Franklin, C. F. (1992). "A Comparison of Teachers vs. Parents As Instructors of a Personal Safety Program for Preschoolers." Child Abuse & Neglect, 16, 127–137.
Wurtele, S. K., Kast, L. C., and Melzer, A. M. (1992). "Sexual Abuse Prevention Education for Young Children: A Comparison of Teachers and Parents As Instructors." Child Abuse & Neglect, 16, 865–876.
Wurtele, S. K., Kvaternick, M., and Franklin, C. F. (1992). "Sexual Abuse Prevention for Preschoolers: A Survey of Parents' Behaviors, Attitudes, and Beliefs." Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 1, 113–128.
Reprinted with the permission of the Committee for Children. © 2007 Committee for Children.
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