My husband and I have been devout in teaching our daughters about all the lurking dangers in the world: smoking, drinking, driving in a car with someone who has been drinking, drugs, driving too fast, and being mindful of unattended bags at airports and train terminals.

We occasionally posed different scenarios to help along the lesson, “What would you do if a lady pulled up and asked if you would help her find her lost puppy?” “What would you do if you were riding your bike and a lady stopped and said, “Your mommy is sick and asked me to take you home to her?” We were impressed with our daughters’ correct answers, feeling confident that they would be better prepared to respond if a situation arose.

When we asked our then four year old daughter, “What would you do if a man came up to you and said, ‘Little girl, I’ll give you candy if you get in my car.’” Without missing a beat, our daughter asked us, “What kind of candy would it be?” It was all Rick and I could do not to burst into laughter. Oh, the power of sugar!

We continued the conversations through the years about smoking, drinking and drugs; but, a conversation we neglected to bring up early on was personal body safety. In fact, it was not until I started working at Dunebrook that I ever thought about it. I suppose the topic was out of our minds, because while Rick and I were growing up, sexual abuse was not discussed in our homes or schools. The topic was taboo for discussion in those days, and remains somewhat so still today.

Since working at Dunebrook, I learned that 95 percent of children who are sexually abused are victimized by someone they know, love and trust. It is likely not the stranger in the dark alley wearing a trench coat that many of us learned to be wary of in grade school. When the girls were young and I volunteered in their classrooms, my mind couldn’t help but wander to a statistic from the Child Welfare Information Gateway: 1 out of 10 children will report being sexually abused by their 18th birthday. It saddens me to know that sexual abuse will – if it hadn’t already – touched many of these children’s lives in some way.

Darkness2Light.org, a national organization committed to raising awareness of the prevalence and consequences of child sexual abuse, reports that 30 percent of children never report to anyone; 80 percent of children deny or are tentative in disclosing; and, less than 1 percent of the time the child fabricates sexual abuse.

Why don’t children tell? Some children have been abused for so long that the perpetrator’s behaviors are normalized; they don’t know something is wrong. Others fear that disclosure will bring retaliation or consequences even worse than being victimized again.

Perpetrators oftentimes threaten children with harm to them or their families. A child who builds up the courage to tell might feel guilty or recant if he is not believed or feels anger directed toward him.

Eventually, a sexually abused child may develop survival skills to cope. The scars, though, never go away. Children who have been sexualized have a greater likelihood to be promiscuous and become pregnant as a teenager.

They are more prone to become involved with drugs and alcohol, and suffer from depression or eating disorders. They are more likely to victimize others, or to become victims in adulthood. These are but a few of the problems that sexual abuse victims battle throughout their lives.

It is critical to teach children that their bodies are their own, and that they have the right to say “no” to a touch for no good reason. When it comes to their bodies, children are their own boss.

As parents, we have to be wary of adults and older teens who might be curiously spending an inordinate amount of time with our child. Perpetrators oftentimes “groom” their victims, gaining their friendship and trust to increase their access to the child and to gain the child’s compliance. They are manipulative enough to not cast any eyes of suspicion from nearby adults. Even children of the same age may perpetrate – be observant.

Watch for red flags: your child suddenly has new and maybe expensive gifts or money, mimics adult-like behaviors or language, or has new names for body parts; or if eating, sleeping or general behaviors change with no apparent reason. Pay attention to whether your child has a sexual vocabulary that is beyond his years.

Certainly, children and adults can be friendly; but as parents, it is our job to make sure that the relationship is age appropriate and safe. Know who your children are with and what they are doing. If your child does tell you that something has happened to him or her, believe it, and call local police or the Department of Child Services at (800) 800-5556.

We cannot be with our children 100 percent of the time, so we have to empower them with the knowledge and confidence to help keep themselves safe. By having open, honest discussions about all of the dangers and peer pressures they are likely to face as they grow up, including drugs, alcohol, tobacco and sexual abuse, they are more likely to come to you with questions or at any time they need help.

Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dunebrook, call (800) 897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at pam@dunebrook.org.

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