By: Stacy W. Thomas, MD, FAAP & Michele LaBotz, MD, FAAP
Getting involved in
sports, clubs, and other organized activities is good for kids. Children in activities get more
exercise and have more self-esteem, research shows, and are better able to manage their time and build relationships.
With news stories about children, teens and young people sexually abused by adults involved in youth organizations, it can be frightening. Parents may wonder how to balance the risk and benefit.
Not just sports
sexual abuse can happen in any youth organization: sports, music, church, scouting...the list goes on. Unfortunately, people who mean harm to children may target settings with lots of children around.
Sexual offenders will often work to gain the trust and respect of parents and other adults in the organization before beginning the abuse. This process, known as "grooming," makes it harder for children to tell anyone about the abuse. They might think that other adults around them who have a good relationship with the abuser wouldn't believe that person would ever do such a thing.
The good news is that there are lots of ways we can keep children safer as they participate in activities that offer them so many great benefits:
1. Talk to your children.
Speak openly, in ways your child can understand, about private body parts, inappropriate touch, and respectful relationships. By starting this conversation, you create an environment in which children are comfortable talking about their bodies and sexuality. After all, how can a child who doesn't have appropriate language for sexual body parts possibly tell anybody that someone touched those body parts in a way that was uncomfortable?
If children understand the importance of personal boundaries and respect, they will be better prepared to recognize actions that are disrespectful, inappropriate, or criminal. With a basic understand of sexual relationships, children are able to see how these relationships should not happen between adults and children.
By encouraging conversation with your children about these subjects, you help them to know they can come to you with problems, and that they will have the language and knowledge needed to express themselves and get help.
2. Keep no secrets.
Make sure your child knows that it is never okay for an adult or older child to tell them to keep a secret from you. Sexual abuse thrives in an environment of secrecy. Sexual offenders use secrecy as a way to groom a child and to make the child feel somehow responsible for their own abuse: "This is just our little secret, right?" This simple rule – no secrets – is one of the best ways to guard against abuse.
3. Explain that adults can help.
Let your children know that you can handle anything they ever need to tell you. Many victims of child sexual abuse report that they did not tell about the abuse because they were afraid of how that information would make their mom or dad feel. The child victim is then trying to protect their parent. Children must know that their caregivers are prepared, or know how to get help, for any problem they may face.
4. Know the risk.
Yes, it's a tough topic. Yes, it's tempting to pretend it doesn't exist. But deciding not to think about the risk takes away your power to recognize and prevent it. Make sure that you have that power, and that you equip your children with that same power. There are excellent programs that help adults can learn more about child sexual abuse (see resources, below).
5. Talk to your child's coaches, teachers, and other mentors.
Any youth-serving organization should have written policies and procedures for child safety. These policies must provide clear physical and behavior boundaries about how adults interact with children. Policies should encourage staff to recognize and report suspicious behaviors.
6. Avoid one-on-one situations between children & unrelated adults.
Any interaction a child has with an adult who is not a parent should be visible to others. This one simple rule greatly reduces a child's risk for sexual abuse. Without privacy, an offender has fewer chances to abuse a child. This rule also applies to physical examinations by medical care providers. Whenever possible, parents and other staff members, such as nurses, should be in the room and able to observe what is taking place.
Children deserve nothing less than safe environments in which to learn, grow, play, compete, and worship. As adults, we all share a responsibility to protect children from abuse.
About Dr. Thomas
Stacy W. Thomas, MD, FAAP, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Wake Forest School of Medicine where she is a physician member of the Child Protection Team and evaluates children for concerns of abuse and neglect. She received a BA at North Carolina State University and an MD at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Dr. Thomas completed a pediatric residency at University of Florida and fellowship at the Children's Hospital of Boston. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics, she is a member of the Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.
About Dr. LaBotz
Michele LaBotz, MD, FAAP, practices sports medicine at InterMed in Portland, ME. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), she is a member of the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness and on the Board of Directors for the Maine Chapter of AAP.