Here is a fact that no one wants to acknowledge – about one third of the cases of sexual assaults reported to law enforcement or sexual assault centers involve children under the age of 12 as the victims. Most of those sexual assaults (up to 90%) are committed by older children and adults known to the victims.
How can children be encouraged to talk with adults about such matters? When children talk to adults about things that make them uncomfortable, they need responses which support that talking about these things with an adult is acceptable.
When a younger child talks about a private part incident with another child of a similar age, where neither child was pressured to comply – perhaps what has been called “playing doctor”; perhaps inappropriate sexual behavior – it is a different type of disclosure than a child telling about an incident that another child, often older, or an adult initiated that is sexually abusive.
In either case, it is critical that the adult a child chooses to tell remains calm, does not blame the child, let the child know you are glad they told you and that you will do what you can to help them out and keep them safe.
Young children are naturally curious about body parts – all body parts. It is typical for young children to try and look at others’ bodies, to run around with little to no clothes on and perhaps, to touch another’s private parts.
It is challenging for children to discriminate between typical childhood curiosities and learning that viewing/touching of private parts by another child, especially an older child, or an adult may not be safe, or appropriate. It is up to adults to help sort through these differences, and respond appropriately. Every child who initiates or participates in “private part behavior” is not a mini-offender or a victim.
When another child or adult does sexually abuse a child, how adults respond can have a critical and long lasting impact on how a child views the event and how they will deal with it. Adults need to unload their anger, dismay, shock and outrage with other adults, but not to the child or within earshot of the child.
Adults need to report sexual abuse incidents to the police and get medical care for the child, if appropriate. A child benefits from talking about an incident, without being forced or questioned to talk about every detail. Children also benefit from being given a choice of adults to speak with.
As we educate our younger children about personal safety, all adults need to learn how to best empower children to use their voice and speak up, and to keep speaking up. When adults over-react, react strongly or start name calling, children may not continue to talk. They worry that they have done something wrong. They worry that they have caused another person to get in trouble. They may feel responsible for upsetting others.
On the other hand, if we tell our children to go to adults for help, and adults under-react or don’t take action when action is warranted, children may get a message that what they say is unimportant and not worth talking about– why tell if nothing happens, or you are not believed, or you are blamed?
Children deserve to receive the support they need – as adults, please help to give it to them.
Besides presenting prevention programs to students, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, known as REACH in Oxford County and the towns of Bridgton and Harrison, offers consultation to school staff and parents. REACH advocates can be contacted at 743-9777 or there 24 hour helpline 1-800-871-7741.
For more information about the Oxford County Domestic Violence Task Force, contact Diane at 364-9908 or email@example.com. If you or someone you know needs assistance, call: Safe Voices: 24 hr. free and confidential helpline 800-559-2927, www.safevoices,org; REACH: Sexual Assault Support Center: 800-871-7741 www.reachmaine.org; or contact your local police department: 9-1-1 for emergency only.