I wish I could say the testimony from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse trial surprised me. Unfortunately, I have heard stories like these thousands of times over the past 25 years as I have treated child abuse victims.
I’ve learned lessons along the way—lessons you should share with parents to arm them in the fight against sexual abuse.
First, the predators parents have to fear are not nameless stalkers on the internet, but the friends and relatives who live at home or in the neighborhood. The vast majority of offenders are adults known to a child—a parent, relative, neighbor, teacher, coach, priest, and unfortunately, physician—someone in a position of power and trust who abuses both.
Children may not display outward signs of abuse. Most child sexual abuse is discovered because a child finally tells someone, which underscores the importance of communication. That brings me to “talking sex” with young children.
Primary care pediatricians have an important role in helping parents educate their children about privacy, safety and sex, starting in early childhood. Encourage parents to name the genitals when they are teaching their toddlers their body parts. Giving them a name teaches children that their genitals, while private, are not so private that you can’t talk about them.
Parents should explain to their children that no one has the right to touch their bodies if they don’t want that to happen.
Parents should teach children early—and often—that there are no secrets between parents and children. Children need to feel safe sharing all information, good or bad, sad or funny, easy or difficult. Parents can use news items, like the Sandusky trial, to start age-appropriate discussions of safety with school-aged children and to reiterate the message that children should always tell a trusted adult if someone is taking advantage of them sexually.
If a child discloses abuse, listen carefully, and support his or her decision to share. Let children know that the abuse was not their fault, and seek help. The discovery of sexual abuse will be a family crisis, and all affected family members will benefit from counseling and support.
As physicians, our best weapon against pedophiles and sexual predators is helping families understand the importance of knowledge and communication.