Talking about childhood sexual abuse can be uncomfortable. Some parents might not know where to start. “What words should we use?” “If we talk about sexual abuse with children, will that make it more likely to happen?” “What if I haven’t figured out my own childhood trauma?” “But my plan to keep my child safe from sexual assault is just to keep them away from strangers.”

We have many misconceptions about sexual abuse and assault. Those misconceptions feed our collective discomfort and can make these discussions ineffective.

The educators at Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services offer developmentally appropriate sexual assault prevention programs for students from pre-K (sometimes younger) to adult. Our elementary school programs focus on helping young children understand personal space, how to ask an adult for help and how to be a proactive bystander. We also teach children to talk to a trusted adult if they experience anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

It is important to understand, however, that we need to do more if we are going to prevent sexual abuse from occurring. Adults, and particularly parents, need to assume the responsibility for prevention by learning how to talk to their children, having accurate information, and assessing relationships that are present in their children’s lives.

“Parents in the Know” is an eight-hour course designed to help supportive adults understand the implications of childhood sexual assault, feel more comfortable talking to children about developmentally appropriate pro-healthy sexuality, and become engaged as a pro-active bystander regarding sexual assault. This is all taught in four two-hour sessions using dialogue, role plays and strategic games.

Throughout all the sessions, addressing boundaries is key — specifically in understanding, recognizing and promoting healthy behaviors between parent (supportive adults) and children as well as helping parents to recognize questionable behaviors in adult interactions with children.

We know that sexual abuse lives in secrecy and fear. The reality is that one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys are victims of sexual assault before they reach 18 years old. Through discussion and dialogue, participants begin to understand that when children have healthy and logical boundaries with the adults in their world, they feel safer.

Appropriateness of adult-to-child interaction is discussed throughout the course. Too often, parents and supportive adults focus upon alerting children to “stranger danger” as a way to keep abuse from happening. While some childhood sexual assault is perpetrated by strangers, the 2005 National Crime Victimization Survey stated that 73 percent of all sexual assaults were perpetrated by someone known to the victim. In those instances, perpetrators use “grooming” tactics to gradually accustom the child to more and more intrusive behavior. By focusing on appropriateness of boundaries and behaviors, parents and supportive adults can better recognize and intervene in questionable adult-to-child behaviors.

One key activity in the first session is placing types of adult/child interactions in “zones.” A green-light behavior zone would be a type of interaction that would be OK with a specific adult. A yellow-light behavior zone would be a cautious interaction and a red-light behavior zone would be an unsafe interaction. For example, while getting a hug from a mother might be a green-zone type of interaction, a hug from a stranger would be a red-zone interaction.

Parents would most likely know to intervene in that hug from a stranger, but need to learn to recognize interactions that fall in that “yellow zone” — behaviors that may create some risk for their child. The key objective is to help supportive adults distinguish between what are appropriate adult-to-child behaviors and to recognize when those boundaries are at risk of being crossed.

Perhaps this all sounds overwhelming, but it is designed to give people tools to aid them in talking about childhood sexual assault and strategies and skills to keep their children safe. Each piece of dialogue, each game, each role play is a step toward prevention. And with each step toward prevention, we can begin to undo misconceptions about sexual assault and create safer childhoods for all.

Currently, the educators in Androscoggin County are facilitating “Parents in the Know” at New Beginnings and, during the month of May, at Hillview Community Center in Lewiston. We have plans to offer more groups this summer and fall.

For more information on those groups, call Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services at 207-784-5272.

Bridget McAlonan is the education coordinator for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.