I was six the first time I heard about a child being horribly abused. My older brother was the one spilling the beans. I can remember locking myself in the bathroom at the time, crying and covering my ears to block out the story. Probably not the most productive response, but all these years later, it’s still sometimes feels like the most natural reaction when there’s news of someone hurting a little kid.
Of all the unsettling things about 2011, few felt like a punch in the gut the way the scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University involving sexual abuse of kid did. The year also brought a series of CNN reports on a stomach-churning parenting book that advises using “a rod” to discipline children . . . and the child deaths that followed.
Thinking of out-of-control adults targeting helpless kids leaves most of us feeling pretty powerless. So, if I’m not supposed to hide or scream, what can I do?
That’s what I’ve spent the first part of the new year trying to figure out: whether there’s some way I can protect not just my daughter, but kids in general from abuse. It turns out, there’s a lot I can do to put the power back where it belongs: not with the abusers but with children and those of us who want them safe. If all of us who hate child abuse made a new year’s resolution to do a few of these things, our kids would get a much safer 2012. Here are four things I found I can do:
- Get informed. The Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas says 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they reach adulthood. Children are also victims of other types of abuse and neglect—and few ever tell. It’s up to us as adults to be there for kids. You can learn the signs of child abuse here.
- Talk to your kids. Yes, even your little kids. There are age-appropriate ways to arm children with the ideas and words that could protect them in a dangerous situation. Stop It Now has some great suggestions for how to talk to your child or teen about abuse. Letting your child know you are there to listen, whatever he or she wants to talk about, is important. Another good idea from the experts: reinforce that your child’s body is his or her own. If something you don’t think is a big deal makes your child uncomfortable—whether it’s hugs hello for Auntie or tickle wars with brother—go ahead and honor your kid’s desire to put some boundaries around his or her body. Kids should get in the practice of making that call for themselves.
- Help child victims. We, the community, are responsible for the little ones who need protection most. It’s not just about reporting suspected abuse, though that’s important. (The Texas Abuse hotline takes calls 24 hours a day: 800-252-5400.) You can also volunteer your time or make a donation to an organization like Texas CASA, which matches each of its volunteers to a child in the foster care system in need of mentoring and support. To learn about other local groups working to address child abuse and neglect, try I Live Here, I Give Here’s “Connect with What You Care About” online tool.
- Pressure elected leaders to act. Imagine if there were services out there so effective that they cut in half the chance that a child will ever be abused. It’s not a fantasy. These programs exist, and vulnerable kids need grown-ups to speak out for them. Let the people in elected office know that keeping kids safe is your priority. It takes only seconds to call the office of your representative or to jot a quick email of support. Sign up for action alerts from Texans Care for Children (where I work), and we’ll let you know when your action matters most and what you can say to have the greatest impact on decisions about child protection.
We as moms know we can’t live in fear all the time, and we don’t want to instill paranoia in our children. But we also need to be responsible. I’d love to hear fellow moms’ experiences with striking that balance. How did you broach talking about abuse with your child? What tips do you have about leveling with kids without scaring them unnecessarily?
Written by: Christine Sinatra