“Did you feel safe?”: Protecting children from sexual abuse

I, like most parents out there, want to protect my children and keep them safe from all of the dangers of the world. Due to my profession, I know the realities of the dangers that lurk amongst our children probably more than most. I know that sexual abuse is one of the most real and threatening dangers facing our children. I know that estimates state that one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused as children and that some estimates put the number closer to one in four for boys. I know that most children do not disclose their sexual abuse, even to loving and concerned parents. I know that children are much more likely to be sexually abused by someone they know. Much more likely! I know that predators groom their victims and also groom the parents, sometimes for years, before acting on their intentions. This means that someone I trust, someone who is a part of my inner circle, may actually intend on harming my child at some point.

One more scary thing my experience has taught me is that I cannot identify who in my world would want to harm my children. Even with all of my years of experience in this field and dealing with this specific issue, I cannot determine who may be a perpetrator. Sure, I can have an uneasy feeling about someone, and I’m darn sure I wouldn’t ignore that after all my work in this area, but I know I may not get a “feeling” about someone who could be a danger. Because perpetrators can spend years grooming a parent before acting, making them feel comfortable, becoming like part of the family (or even being family), there is really no way for any of us to know who could be a threat.

I also know that I want my children to feel safe in their world. I want them to be trusting and to believe that the world is a good and safe place. I want to preserve the innocence of their childhood as long as possible. I want them to love and trust their community and the people in it. I don’t want them to be scared or paranoid that they could be harmed.

So, these disheartening facts have left me, as a parent, struggling to find balance between preserving my children’s innocence and trust in their community and knowing if they are truly safe. How does a parent ask their kid about their experiences away from them without sounding paranoid? Without freaking out our children or giving them the sense that something bad could happen at any point or that the people in their lives cannot be trusted? I used to ask my kids about their time away from me with questions like, “did you have fun?”, “what did you do?”, “who was there?” and then just watch their reactions to these questions, hoping I would pick up on any change in their demeanor or discomfort about something. To ask more could freak them out! So I didn’t. But it didn’t feel like enough.

Then a few years ago I heard from somewhere something brilliant (maybe TV or an article, I honestly can’t remember the source). A way to ask that will mean virtually nothing to your child if everything is fine, but could make all the difference if at some point your child is at risk or has actually been harmed. Now I ask my kids, along with all of the other questions above, “did you feel safe the whole time?” The responses I get to that question varies from child to child. From one of my children, with a sigh of annoyance that mom is so overprotective and a monotone “yes mom” with a slight eye roll. For another, it is a little laugh with a “mom you always ask that question!” To which I respond that it’s my job to make sure he’s safe, to which he tells me, “well, my answer is always going to be yes!”

These responses give me tons of useful information. Most importantly, I get to know that their sense of safety is intact. As of now, they can’t imagine that they would ever be in a situation where harm is a real possibility (and for that I thank my lucky stars daily!).

It also gives me a way to check in on their experience. It helps me know that not only did they have fun, but all was well in their little worlds while they were outside of my protective wings.

Another thing this creates, and I love this, is a way for them to check in on their own intuition. I am communicating to them that their intuition is important, that any sense of fear or discomfort they may have is something they should pay attention to. (This is something I have discussed with them all at various times).

And the number one thing this question gives me is a baseline. I know how they each respond. Yes, I see annoyance (that is my job, after all), but I also see comfort. This question does not make them withdraw. It does not make them shut down. It does not make them become defensive. If there is any change in that at any point, I will know I need to investigate further.

While I know the dangers out there and I fear them greatly, as I think every responsible parent does, I know I cannot keep my children from experiencing some of the pain life brings. I have to let them go. I have to take a deep breath and trust that they will be OK. I cannot let my professional experiences make me paranoid. I do find comfort, however, that I am doing my part to keep them safe during this short and sacred time we call childhood. I believe that these four little words, “did you feel safe?” is an important tool in my large toolbox of ideas and strategies to keep them safe and to help them grow into well-adjusted adults. If you find it helpful, feel free to add it to your toolbox as well!

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