Protect Grandkids

by Bart Klika

As a bystander, I wanted to help, but how? Should I go talk to the dad? Should I ignore the situation altogether – after all, shouldn’t I mind my own darn business? In the end, I smiled at the father and said, “I have been there before.”

If you are like me, you continually find yourself in situations in which you feel a desire to support a parent but just don’t know how. Maybe you have children or grandchildren of your own, maybe you teach a Sunday school class, maybe you volunteer in a classroom. Regardless, we have all be in situations where we wanted to help but just didn’t know how. Parenting, under the best of circumstances, is challenging. We all need support in this journey we call parenting.

After all, the stressors facing children and families today are real and carry lasting consequences. Mental
health problems, substance use, intimate partner violence, divorce and child abuse exact a toll on the
biological systems of the body, and can alter brain development and functioning. The prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system due to stress and adversity in childhood is now being linked to some of the leading physical health morbidities in the United States.

grandkidsThe “Adverse Childhood Experiences Study” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the relationship between adversities in childhood and health functioning in adulthood in more than 17,000 patients through Kaiser Permanente, an HMO in San Diego. Surprising to some, the researchers found that as the number of adversities in childhood increased, so, too, did the risk for health problems in adulthood, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke to name a few. The good news? Major childhood adversities are preventable when communities mobilize to create safe
and nurturing environments for all children.

One of the most socially taboo, secret and debilitating adversities that a child can endure is sexual abuse. When talking about sexual abuse, I am talking about any sexual activity between an adult and a minor.

For years, the national response to the prevention of child sexual abuse has been to teach children skills to “just say no” to inappropriate or unwanted sexual contact with others. These “run-and-tell” strategies
necessarily arm children with the skills and language needed to protect themselves from harm and to identify trusted adults with whom they can disclose past sexual violations. Unfortunately, these strategies send the message to children that it is their own responsibility to protect themselves
from perpetrators of sexual violence. The prevention of child sexual abuse is an adult responsibility – we all have a role to play in the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Now, you might be thinking, “It is one thing to smile at a dad on the playground, but it is a whole different ballgame to think about preventing or responding to a suspected case of child sexual abuse.” Fortunately, there are simple, easy ways that you can become a partner in prevention to ensure that all
children experience safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments.

Learn the facts. When we learn the facts, we are able to debunk myths and better protect our children. For example, most cases (upward of 90 percent) of child sexual abuse occur with someone that the family knows and trusts.

Minimize opportunity. To prevent child sexual abuse, we need to identify and alter the setting where children are placed at highest risk. Minimize (not necessarily eliminate) situations where adults and children are one on one. Strive to have all adult-child interactions be observable and interruptible.

Talk about it. Sexual abuse thrives in an environment of secrecy. Talking with children about their bodies helps them understand that their bodies are special and private. We must teach children the correct anatomical language for their body parts and facilitate open conversations about body boundaries.

Recognize the signs. The signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse are not always physical. Some children may experience a loss of appetite, become sad and withdrawn, or may try to avoid people or situations where the abuse was occurring. While these signs do not mean that sexual abuse is occurring for a child, they become an opportunity to have a conversation with a child about what is going on in his or her life.

React responsibly. If a child discloses that he or she experienced sexual abuse, remain calm. Tell that child that you believe them and that you will do whatever you can to make sure that no more abuse will occur. Report any suspected child sexual abuse to the child abuse hotline: 1-866-820-5437.

The tips above are drawn from a child sexual abuse curriculum called “Darkness to Light: Stewards
of Children.” This two-hour, evidence-informed curriculum teaches individuals, agencies and communities the steps necessary to safeguard our children from child sexual abuse. If you are interested in more information about “Darkness to Light,” visit d2l.org. For information on how to host a training for your agency, organization, business, congregation or any other setting, contact the Missoula Child Sexual Abuse Prevention team at missoulaCSAPT@gmail.com.

The prevention of child sexual abuse requires a coordinated community effort whereby adults take responsibility for the protection of our children. Child sexual abuse is preventable and we all have a role to play. Become a partner in prevention.

Dr. Bart Klika is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Montana and can be reached at bart.klika@mso.umt.edu.

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