Think child sexual abuse is always perpetrated by adults? Think again. By Michelle Derrig
Let’s face it, talking about the dangers of sexual abuse with our children is not something we look forward to. It’s not a nice subject to think about, and it can be painful and confronting for the one in four parents who have experienced childhood abuse themselves. For others, they simply don’t know what information they should impart and are concerned about frightening their child. And then there are the parents who just don’t think their child is at risk!
As a mother to four young children, I had very basic conversations with them about how their body is private. However, as I was passionate about protecting their innocence, the information I offered was limited. As a stay-at-home mum, I was also under the illusion that sexual abuse wouldn’t happen to my kids—after all, I’m the one who mostly supervised my children and I was very careful about which adults they were left alone with.
All this changed four years ago when I went out to dinner with some friends and two of the mums shared how their children had been sexually abused by their own peers.
In the first case, seven-year-old Jake* confided in his mum on the way home from a playdate at the park that his mate Will*, also seven, had been touching him inappropriately as they’d played on the play equipment.
In the second story, Lisa* thought she was doing the right thing when she told her nine-year-old son to ask his friend Cooper* to accompany him to the toilets so she could continue to watch her two younger children. As Lisa was chatting to Cooper’s mum, she suddenly sensed something was wrong. In this case, her intuition was sadly spot on: When Lisa entered the toilet cubicle, she discovered her son being abused by Cooper.
As I listened to these mothers share their stories, I was totally shocked. I had never considered my children to be at risk of abuse by their own peers; nor had I ever imagined my children could experience abuse while under my supervision. I returned home haunted by these stories and quickly realised I couldn’t ignore the fact my children were just as much at risk as these other young victims.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, three children (two girls and one boy) in every Australian primary school class of 22 will report being sexually abused before the age of 15. And that is just the tip of the iceberg as a lot of abuse goes unreported.
Even more concerning are statistics by Australian child protection organisation, Bravehearts, which indicate that 30–60 per cent of childhood sexual abuse is perpetrated by other children and young people. According to their research, there are “a wide variety of reasons why young people engage in these behaviours (ranging from curiosity to previous trauma)”.
In Will’s case, it turned out he had discovered pornography on his iPad and was acting out as a result of what he had been exposed to. In Cooper’s case, there was strong evidence suggesting he was a victim of abuse himself.
As I further reflected upon the experiences of these young children, I wondered, How could I help reduce the risk of my kids being abused by their peers? These mums were both wonderful, loving parents who had simply been enjoying time with their family and friends at the park!
One thing I did know: helicopter parenting was not the answer. My children needed a certain amount of freedom, autonomy and independence to grow into healthy functioning adults. It was at this point I began to understand that if I wanted to try and protect my children, I needed to educate them with the knowledge that their body is private and that they have the right to protect their privacy. Essentially, I needed to empower them to take ownership of their body and to feel confident to disclose whenever they were feeling uncomfortable or concerned.
Andrea Musulin, an inductee into Western Australia’s inaugural Women’s Hall of Fame as a leader and pioneer in child protection, confirms “while there is no foolproof system for protecting children, education serves as a very effective tool for increasing the personal safety of children. It is vital that parents introduce safety concepts to children in a non-threatening manner and in a way that doesn't alarm or frighten them.”
Andrea, who was a police officer with the WA police force for 30 years, working extensively in the child protection field, and who is now the director of the Perth Catholic archdiocese safeguarding program, goes on to explain, “In protecting our children from sexual abuse, parents really need to work against the modus operandi (methods) of those who commit such offences and this includes adults and other children.”
In fact, Andrea goes on to state that “it’s easier for children to resist sexual activity when it’s being introduced by another child in comparison to adults. However, the problem is most children under 10 are not even aware that what they are doing is wrong, nor do they have the skills or knowledge to resist.”
In light of this, Andrea recommends all parents start having sex education conversations with their children from the age of six.
“In doing so, it is vitally important that the information provided is age and developmentally appropriate and that it is provided in the proper measure. Sex education, however, is not enough and as such all parents, being the primary educators of their children, must provide their children with protective behaviours education from an even younger age,” she says.
Even once you do make the decision to educate your children, it’s possible that you will still be feeling overwhelmed. There is a lot of content to consider and for me, the last thing I wanted to do was ruin my children’s innocence. I already struggled with my kids growing up in an over-sexualised world and I didn’t want them knowing too much too soon! However, I also recognised that as the primary educators of our children, we as parents have a responsibility to talk about protective behaviours with our children.
As I wondered how to discuss the subject with my own children, I felt called to create a resource that would help parents facilitate these types of conversations with children aged three to eight years. A resource that would gently lead children through this confronting topic in a dignified manner, engaging them through rhyme and beautiful illustrations. Most importantly, I wanted a book to teach children that they have the right to say “No” to anyone, even if it is a friend who is behaving inappropriately.
It took two years of consulting and researching before my picture book, Only For Me, was released in July 2016. Since that time, I have sold more than 3500 copies and been overwhelmed by feedback from parents, teachers, educators and expert professionals. Incredibly though, it was the testimony of someone within my immediate circle that had the most profound effect on me. They shared how their seven-year-old son Luke* had disclosed, on the way home from swimming lessons, that another boy in his class had been “doing what Only For Me says you shouldn’t do”.
It was a direct result of reading Only For Me that Luke recognised the boy's behaviour as inappropriate and realised he needed to tell someone he could trust.
Going forward, my mission is to encourage every parent to have age appropriate, protective behaviour conversations with their children. When you take into consideration that abuse can even be perpetrated by a child’s own peers, it is obvious every child needs to be educated and empowered.
* Names have been changed.
How to Protect Your Children
Andrea Musulin, a leader and pioneer in child protection, explains that protective behaviour conversations with our children should be based on two key themes:
- All children have the right to physical and psychological safety at all times.
- Nothing is so awful we can’t talk to someone about it.
She says effective protective behaviour conversations need to include:
- teaching your child to identify unsafe situations;
- teaching your child to respond appropriately to unsafe situations;
- developing your child’s problem-solving skills required to prevent and disclose abuse;
- developing a language of safety for your child, to help disclose abuse or ask for help.
If you are concerned about a child’s wellbeing, contact the police or the child protection authority in your state immediately. If you would like to talk to someone, seek support or obtain advice for how to protect and support your loved one, contact:
- Bravehearts: 1800 272 831 Australia
- Parent Help: 0800 568 856 New Zealand
Michelle Derrig is a mother to four, author and child protection advocate who is passionate about educating parents and children about protective behaviours.