Protecting Your Daughters From Sexual Abuse
Open dialogue, body autonomy, and being involved all play an important role in helping protect your daughter:
As the trial of former USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, continues to dominate the front pages, parents of daughters who play sports are asking themselves: what can I do to protect my daughter from sexual assault?
The stories of the gymnasts, whose lives were turned upside down by Nassar’s abuse, are sadly not uncommon. According to Kimberlee Norris, an attorney who specializes in these cases, told espnW that sexual abuse committed by adults is more rampant than many know.
"Across the board, one in four girls and one in six boys under the age of 18 will be a victim," she said. "The highest risk areas are those that allow for one-on-one adult-child interaction, often at the elite level. Those activities that involve body positioning, such as swimming or gymnastics, exacerbate the risk because touching is a part of the training."
While we don’t want to live in fear and keep our children from participating in activities or sports that they love, there needs to be a greater deal of awareness parents exhibit. The truth of the matter is, not everyone will have the same interest of protecting your children, and the organizations that hire coaches who inevitably abuse children will oftentimes cover up the abuse or will not know how to handle claims of sexual abuse.
This is why you, as a parent, need to equip yourself with as much knowledge as you can so you can spot signs of abuse, and also be able to have honest and open conversations with your daughter about it. More importantly, it’s important to teach your daughter body autonomy as early as possible to give her a better understanding and awareness that no one has the right to make her feel uncomfortable with her own body.
Talk to you daughter about sexual abuse:
This is perhaps the most uncomfortable conversation you will have. But you have to to do it. But don’t want until your daughter starts developing. Start as young as possible because abuse happens to girls of all ages. The conversation doesn’t have to be laced with complicated statements, even though you will most likely endure complicated questions.
First, talk to your daughter about what type of behavior is appropriate. Don’t be vague in your language, or try to doctor it up. Be real and upfront.
Tell her, “If someone touches your genitals, no matter what they tell you, that is not okay.”
Be direct and specific in your language. Avoid calling her vagina playful words. In fact, pediatricians agree that using anatomically correct names for private parts takes away the shame often attached to them. "It is important to teach your child the proper names for body parts. Making up names for body parts may give the idea that there is something bad about the proper name,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
This part of the conversation is extremely important because if your child is being abused, she will be able to tell you more specifically what is happening and where. And by having the conversation early on with her about what sexual abuse is, she will be able to differentiate more clearly what behavior is normal for a coach to partake in, and what behavior crosses inappropriate lines.
By doing so, you will help her set appropriate boundaries.
This is where body autonomy comes in:
Teach your daughter ownership of her own body:
In situations specifically with coaching, your child will mostly have a coach put their hands on them to show them how to properly perform a certain function in sport. And if your child works with a personal trainer or physical therapist, the hands-on approach will also be very likely.
But teaching your daughter at an early age that her body is hers and no one else’s, can help her vocalize herself if abuse is taking place. And this lesson starts at home.
The Girl Scouts of USA recently reminded parents that they should not “force” their daughters to hug or kiss relatives if they don’t want to. Doing so could give your daughter the “wrong idea about consent and physical affection.”
Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald said that though the “notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children ... the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older.”
So if your daughter is taught at an early age that physical affection is required to give to adults when they request it, then she will be less likely to report sexual abuse. She might learn to interpret that an adult sexually abusing her is showing her love, and that she is required to show that affection in return.
Check in Regularly
Ask questions, A LOT. Ask your daughter if her coach has ever made her feel uncomfortable. By checking in, you’re showing your daughter that you will be available to talk to her should something ever arise and that you care more about her well-being than her progress in the sport she’s playing.
It might seem like paranoia, but you’re actually empowering yourself and your child. You’re laying a foundation for your child to say, “Mom/dad, my coach did something today that made me feel weird. Can we talk about it?”
During this conversation you can explore the behavior that she said made her uneasy. And when you talk to your child about someone’s behavior, ask questions that go beyond if their coach touched them inappropriately. Ask your child if their coach has said anything that has made them uncomfortable. This can range from their coach commenting on her body, paying her physical compliments, or using sexually charged language around her. Sexual abuse often doesn’t start with touching, and what is called a grooming process begins to take place.
By continuing an open dialogue with your child about behavior exhibited by her coaches, you will also teach her to pay more attention to what does and doesn’t make her feel good or comfortable.
While you may be trying to avoid being the “helicopter parent” being present at practice and coaching sessions will help lessen the chances of your daughter being victimized. Being at the practice doesn’t mean you have to stand inches away from your coach and daughter. But standing on the sidelines having your presence there can show not only that you’re engaged, but will also give you the opportunity to observe any behavior that doesn’t seem befitting of a coach to exhibit.
Believe your daughter
If your daughter expresses that she’s uncomfortable or doesn’t like the way her coach is treating her, believe her. Should you try to diminish what she’s feeling, it will only keep her from sharing anything with you in the future, even if the behavior worsens.
By showing your daughter that you care about her opinion and that her desire to feel safe and comfortable is important to you, it will empower her to continue to voice herself.
And if there’s one thing abusers don’t want, it’s for their victims to feel like they have a voice.
For more information on how to talk to your children about sexual abuse visit www.kidsafefoundation.org