Talking can keep kids clear of sexual abuse

Talking to children about their bodies and about sex is one of the most difficult conversations for parents, but it's also the most important step in preventing them from being sexually abused, children's advocates say.

Teaching parents and caregivers how to discuss inappropriate touching and how to spot the signs of sexual abuse was the focus of a workshop and discussion held Thursday as part of Celebrate Children Month.

"It's an important aspect that people don't discuss," said Sarah Hepworth, director of the Moffat County Early Childhood Center. "It's kind of a taboo subject that we think is important that parents discuss."

Amy Jones, a former Early Childhood Coalition employee with a master's degree in social work, led the discussion.

"Questions about typical and concerning sexual behavior and my own children's development drove me to more extensive research," she said.

In 2003, 18 sex offenses were reported in Craig, down from 30 in 2002.

Boys and girls have the same level of risk, and the perpetrator often is someone the child knows and loves.

Teaching children to distinguish inappropriate touching from loving touching is important and difficult, discussion leaders said.

"Touch is so important to children," said a video produced by the National Committee For Children. "It can convey -- without a word -- love, comfort, nurturing and acceptance. Sexual abuse isn't the same as fondling touches used to show love."

Children may be reluctant to tell a parent when they have been sexually abused because they may not understand the behavior is inappropriate, they may be bribed or threatened, feel ashamed or blame themselves, Jones said.

"Talking in an open and honest way sets the tone so children know it's safe to be open and honest," according to the video.

Jones said some parents are uncomfortable talking about inappropriate touching.

"As a society we're very comfortable looking at sex on TV, but we're not comfortable talking about it," she said.

The video, purchased by the Early Childhood Center after accusations of sexual misconduct against a Craig man and Boy Scout leader, offered tips for making it an easier conversation.

Just like teaching children not to play with matches or to look both ways before crossing the street, parents can make rules about safe touching, advocates said. Children should be told that no adult should touch their private body parts except to keep them clean and for health reasons. In any circumstance that's not the case, a child should say "no," run, and tell their parents right away, advocates said.

"Sexual abuse has to be kept a secret for it to continue to happen. We want to break that secret," the video said.

Give children the tools to convey their message and words that won't be mistaken for gibberish when they could be trying to describe an event or hazardous situation. Children also should know it's OK for them to set their own boundaries for touching and personal space.

When a child asks "what's that" in relation to a body part, repeats something they heard from another child about a body part or asks about natural functions, those are all natural teaching opportunities, according to the Committee for Children, and could be used to introduce touching rules or to reinforce them.

Keeping children out of situations where there is a potential for sexual abuse also is critical to ensuring their safety, the video said. Questions parents should think about include who is the child with when they're not with you; what do you know about your children's friends and their parents; and have you checked a child-care provider's references?

Consider carefully adults who are more interested in relationships with children than in relationships with other adults or those who seek out one particular child and want to be alone with the child.

Those could be signs of a potential abuser, Jones said.

It's also important to know the difference between normal stages of sex play and signs of abuse, she said.

Signs that a child may have been sexually abused are sudden changes in behavior, inappropriate sexualized behavior and excessive play with body parts.

Normal behavior for children from birth to 4 years old includes random touching of their own genitals, showing their genitals, being interested in or asking about bathroom functions, being interested in and exploring the difference between genitals, using dirty language or playing house or doctor.

"I think what they're in contact with regularly is typical behavior of sexual development," Hepworth said. "Providers can confuse that with signs of sexual abuse. As early childhood professionals, we have the responsibility to let parents know this is happening and whether it's typical or non-typical behavior."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210 or at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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