As I write this, we’re in the middle of Child Abuse Awareness Month. As you read this, that month may well have passed – but the need for maintaining awareness about this issue remains a year-round responsibility for us all.
The first step in both preventing children from being abused and helping children recover from abuse is to be aware of the reality. Statistically, one in four children will be abused before the age of 18, almost all of them at the hands of a familiar adult – a family member, friend, or mentor.
That means you know someone who has been abused, and you know someone who has abused, whether you recognize it or not.
Be aware of what physical abuse is. It’s any action, or failure to act, that leads to serious physical injury of a child – injury that causes substantial pain or any impairment in functioning. These actions do not need to be intentional or even knowingly committed. The expanded definition in Pennsylvania (check your state for variations) includes any actions that may be considered recklessly exposing a child to serious physical injury.
Reckless means “without thinking or caring about the consequences of an action.” Inattentive, neglectful, or distracted caregiving, as well as angry, violent, or explosive actions that expose a child to the risk of serious injury is considered child abuse.
Be aware of what sexual abuse is. It’s adults engaging in any sexually explicit behavior with a minor child, under the age of 18. It’s in any way enticing a child to engage in any sexual behaviors, as well as involving a child in any sexually explicit video or photography, or even purposely exposing a child to such pornography.
NOTE: Consensual sexual behaviors between teenagers of similar ages may be considered a problem to be addressed, but is not typically considered sexual abuse.
Be aware that child abuse also includes psychological abuse (acts that cause serious mental or emotional injury and impaired functioning) and neglect (acts that lead to serious developmental, medical, or educational delays and impairments).
It’s important for you to be educated about what to look for in terms of signs of abuse. And you’ll find useful checklists as well as tips at several of these resources:
- National Children’s Advocacy Center – http://www.nationalcac.org
- National Children’s Alliance – http://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org
- PA Family Support Alliance – http://www.pa-fsa.org
Most importantly, please make your child aware of child abuse. This is something we often avoid because (a) it’s scary and difficult for us to comprehend and (b) we want to protect our children from such horrors; we don’t want to spoil their innocence.
Here’s the problem – we can’t raise our children in a bubble. The adult world is literally being downloaded on them at earlier and earlier ages. They are surrounded by information and misinformation online and off. And their peers are exposed to it, even if you think your child is not. And they are talking about it, even if you think your child is not.
So it’s far more important to speak up, early and often, to equip your child with the information, values, and action plans you think are best.
When we accept that child abuse happens, we can deal with it more realistically. Of course, it doesn’t mean we approve or agree with it when it happens – absolutely not! But if we stay in denial, we can’t help our kids deal with it. And if we react hysterically to it, we can’t help them cope successfully either.
So the challenge is to remain alert, open to discussing the issue in general with all our children, and open to hearing and supporting a child when they have been abused.
It’s important to be vigilant, yet not paranoid. Be open-minded and objective, not emotionally pre-judging one way or the other.
In educating your child about abuse, calmly discuss how some adults, like children, make mistakes, have big problems, or do bad things. Most don’t, but some do. Sometimes they hit or hurt others, including children. Sometimes they touch children, or ask children to touch them, in ways they shouldn’t – in their private parts. Explain directly and simply what their private parts are.
Let your children know that it’s ALWAYS the right thing to do to tell you – or another trusted adult – any time they think someone is hurting them or touching them in their privates or asking them to do something they don’t feel is right.
Above all else, if a child tells you about somebody or something that hurt them, or made them feel uncomfortable, or that they’re afraid of – listen.
You may not understand it. You may or may not want to believe it. You may want to scream or cry or laugh or dismiss or attack. Don’t.
Pause. Breathe. Proceed.
Calmly and lovingly, thank your child for sharing. Believe in them. Believe that something is the matter here, whatever that may be, and you will help them get the help they need. You will help them be safe.
Always reassure them that they did the right thing to tell you, and that this is not their fault. The child will typically feel ashamed and embarrassed, as well as violated, unsafe, and untrusting. They need a calm, stable adult response to help them begin healing.
The good news is children can and do heal from all kinds of pain, including abuse. They can be resilient and thrive – especially when guided by a mindful village of wise and compassionate caregivers. Let’s keep facing these difficult challenges together, with open minds and open hearts.
Our children deserve no less.
Peter Montminy, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, mindfulness teacher, loving husband and dad. He invites you to join in an ongoing conversation that seeks to restore sanity to humanity – one child at a time. Join us at www.AMindfulVillage.com.