The flowers are beginning to bloom and the days are getting warmer, and that means one thing, spring sports are starting soon. Far too often we hear horror stories of children being sexually abused by their coaches. We think back to Penn State or most recently the gymnasts accusing sexual abuse by the USA coach. Sexual abuse can happen to anyone no matter race, gender, or socio-economic status. But, we can do something about this by having conversations about child sexual abuse.
First, let’s talk to our kids.
- Teach anatomically correct names for body parts. We need to teach children the correct names for their body parts like we would an ear, elbow, or nose. By teaching this, there is no shame or stigma associated with those parts of their body. Also, if a child discloses abuse to a trusted adult and uses the correct body part name, that trusted adult can understand exactly what the child is saying.
- Private body parts are special. Let your children know that anything that is covered by a swimsuit is their private area. This area is special and no one should be touching or looking at this area except to keep them clean or healthy. Give them concrete examples about when this is ok. Some examples may include when an adult needs to change a baby’s diaper, when a parent helps them take a bath, or when a doctor needs to check their private parts.
- Understand the difference between safe and unsafe touches. Let children know that there are different types of touches they can receive. Safe touch examples can include high fives, hugs, and handshakes. Unsafe touch examples are a pinch, kick, or someone touching their private body parts. Children need to know their body belongs to them, and to speak up if they receive an unsafe touch.
- Don’t keep secrets. Teach your children the difference between secrets and surprises. Secrets are something that a person wants another person to keep forever, and they could potentially hurt someone. Surprises, however, are short term and will not hurt anyone. Give children examples of when surprises are ok. If daddy buys mommy a necklace for her birthday, that is a surprise we should keep. If their friend’s mom is throwing a surprise birthday party for their friend, that is something we should not tell either. Make sure children understand the difference.
- Know some trusted adults. Children also need trusted adults to turn to if something happens to them. Make sure your child has 3-4 people in their trusted adult circle. Talk to them about who those trusted adults can be and have a trusted adult everywhere your child goes. Make sure they have someone at home, school, sports, church, and anywhere else they frequent so they always have somewhere to turn.
Next, talk to your child’s coach, school, and league.
- Ask about background checks. Most youth serving organizations will conduct background checks before letting adults work with children, but they may not always screen for child abuse. Encourage them to do so and check fingerprints and references. Also, ask what kind of training do the coaches receive regarding child sexual abuse prevention. The Stewards of Children training can be facilitated in person or online.
- Meet EVERYONE your child will be working with. Many times we meet the head coach or other person in charge of our child’s extra-curricular activity, but we may not meet the others who assist. Make it a point to ask who all your child will be spending time with and ask to be introduced. By getting to know everyone, you are sending the message that you are involved and a parent that pays attention. Perpetrators typically do not choose children who have parents that are actively engaged in their child’s activities.
- Minimizing Opportunities. Most of the time when a team practices, they are out on a field or court where it is observable and interruptible. What about that time when they may be in a locker room or have one-on-one instruction from the coach? Ask the coach how many adults are in the locker rooms with the children observing what takes place. Ask the coach how they handle one-on-one instruction with a child. Where does that instruction take place? Do they ask permission to touch a child before showing mechanical moves.
- Act quickly. If you suspect something, stop all contact between your child and that adult. Call the Department of Children’s Services and report the abuse, even if it is just a suspicion. If it is an emergency situation, call 911. Do not confront the perpetrator, let the professionals deal with the situation. And always, err on the side of protecting your child. Many times we do not want to slander a person, especially if we like them, but we must be diligent about protecting our children.
As we begin to talk more about sexual abuse, we will begin to see a decrease in the numbers of children effected. We will begin to see people who are more vigilant about who has access to children. We will stop making excuses about this silent epidemic.
Call the Education Department at the Sexual Assault Center for more information about training for parents, coaches, or other adults that work with youth. We can be reached at http://www.sacenter.org or by calling 615.259.9055. Let’s work together to end sexual violence in our community.