5 ways to protect your child from sexual abuse
A generation ago, nobody thought about discussing child abuse as a risk on summer break. Nobody talked about sex, either, and definitely not sexual child abuse. But school is almost out, and summer means lots of tablet time for many children — which means greater risk of explicit online exposure.
In today’s society of graphic, gratuitous sexual access, parenting by silence on the topic is no longer an option. Not that it was healthy in the first place … as painfully evidenced by the overwhelming number of older adults who waited decades to disclose. We now know 86% of child sexual abuse goes unreported altogether, and the average age of reporting child sex abuse is about 52 years.
How can caring Christian parents prevent repeating cycles of silent suffering, without wrecking their children’s innocence first-hand?
1. Start with yourself
Today's world is divided into two fractured, distinct packages: real life and the digital matrix. If your kids have online access at all, they are being exposed to information your own childhood memories cannot fathom. The bit you see as you interact around the dinner table, driving back and forth from school — is a woefully incomplete picture of the world your kids inhabit.
If you're not active on the same social platforms as your kids, it’s easy to assume their online interactions are mostly harmless. But spend time browsing the feeds that bombard your kids, and you'll find widespread normalization of entitlement, cruelty, and toxic sexuality on everyday apps like Instagram, TikTok, Kik, and Snapchat. Even if you’re on these apps too, remember that algorithms are trained by both user profile and behavior, so you may have entirely different content on your feed. Spend an afternoon in the same space as your tweens and teens — and you might be horrified.
Parenting apps like Bark can help you track every click on your kids devices and get notified when messages drift into inappropriate content or bullying behaviors.
But you can’t fix what you don’t know, so if you want to protect your kids online, educate yourself first.
2. Avoid unsupervised internet access
Most Christian parents think of home as a safe place and yet, almost 80% of children's first-time exposure to pornography happens at home. With children’s increased online access, the average age of exposure or involvement is as low as second grade.
Today's porn is not what you were exposed to as a kid. It is filled with violent rape, incest, child assault. A news report in January 2023 states, “The Internet Watch Foundation received reports of 63,050 webpages containing images and videos of children aged seven to 10 sexually abusing themselves on camera last year, an increase of just over 1,000% on the year before the coronavirus pandemic.”
You can reduce the risk of accidental exposure, by filtering household internet at the router level with tools like Gryphon — but home isn’t the only place kids get online. The reality is — if your kids or their friends have access to internet-enabled electronics — by age eight or nine they have probably seen hardcore porn. Other kids’ parents may not be attuned to this risk.
If you are not talking to your children about healthy sexuality and the dangers around them, porn will be your children’s default source of sex ed. Don't question it. Count on it.
3. Talk a lot about everything
“My kids would tell me if something happened!” you say. But if you’re not comfortable talking about sex and body parts in non-judgmental everyday conversation, why would your children have more courage than you do?
Silence on these subjects creates the next generation of porn addicts, abusers, and rape victims. Unspoken rules that sidestep awkward conversations, make kids unlikely to talk about what they’ve seen, or what another adult or older child did to them.
Instead, you be the one to start the conversation. If it feels awkward, use a book like Good Pictures, Bad Pictures, to guide your chats with school-age and tweens. There’s even a preschooler’s version for your littles!
When your child asks a question about sex, genitals, pregnancy, birth, their own body, someone else's body, or that larger-than-life poster in the mall — don’t gasp and shut it down. Don't assume the worst.
Stay calm. Answer, then ask questions back. Engage as casually as if you were planning tomorrow’s breakfast menu.
Stay curious. Probe for the question underneath their question. Stay neutral until you know more about what they’re getting at. If they say something shocking about someone you think would never do such a thing, don’t assume they’re making it up. If you act horrified, your child may never open up to you again.
4. Educate from infancy
Plan on a thousand conversations from toddlerhood up — teaching age-appropriate concepts on body parts, consent, respect, kindness, empathy, and confidence in your right to feel safe. The more you remove the titillating mystery that shrouded the subject in your own childhood, the more equipped your children can be to recognize when something isn’t right.
Start young with proper body names and basic principles of safe and unsafe touch. Toddlers can learn that no means no without ever hearing the word sex. Role play “May I give you a hug? No? That’s okay. Would you rather shake my hand? How about a high five!”
You can give very small children the right to decline touch that makes them uncomfortable, while still teaching politeness. They don't have to hug grandma or the greeter at church. They don't have to endure creepy uncle kisses to protect family peace.
Teach them to say no, firmly without disrespect. “No, thank you. May I shake your hand instead?” “I don't feel like a hug right now, but I love you!” Teach them to expect that they will be respected. Anything less should be an aberration, not their baseline.
Teach sons that “No” does not equal “Try harder to change her mind.” Teach your daughters that they can say no and expect men and boys to know they mean it.
This starts with your behavior as a parent. Every time you invade your child's space, you're teaching them that blind obedience to someone bigger than them is more important than listening to their safety instincts.
Fortunately, there are lots of resources available, like these quick parent chats about how to respond when your child has already been exposed.
5. Don't wait
Porn exposure is a form of sexual assault, and in today’s world this risk is not if, it’s when. The better question is “Can I delay exposure long enough to give them tools so that it is a less traumatic experience?”
Ultimately, you cannot prevent exposure to explicit content at some point in your child’s life. Seeking to control every variable in their world will not make their world actually safer, it will just leave them under-equipped and vulnerable.
As parents, we must educate before exposure. As an abuse recovery coach, countless moms have told me, “I wish I had known this before. By the time I thought my kids were old enough, I was too late. When decided it was time to have the talk, my child had already seen hardcore porn at the ice-skating rink, or a playdate, or looking over a friend’s shoulder on a tablet in church, while I was just 10 feet away.”
Godly parents have a duty to educate our children first, before their peers, a perverted relative, or an innocent google search steps in and does it for us. A well-informed child is a well-armored child. A child who feels free to talk to their parents about absolutely anything, is a child more likely to tell you when something happens.
If you don't have this kind of relationship with your kids yet, today is the best day to start.
Sarah McDugal is an author, speaker, abuse recovery coach, and co-founder of Wilderness to WILD & the TraumaMAMAs mobile app. She creates courses, community, and coaching for women recovering from deceptive sexual trauma, coercive control, and intimate terrorism.