Over 90% of the time, children are sexually abused by someone they know trust or love.
Even when we know and believe this statistic as a fact, it can be hard to believe that someone we know and love could also be sexually inappropriate or sexually abuse a child. It can be hard to reconcile the picture in our mind of those who sexually abuse children with someone we know who has a good job, a nice family, and seems to have a lot going for them. The person may have all these characteristics, yet behave inappropriately with children.
Trusted Family and Friends
Typically a child is more likely to be approached by someone in the family “context,”, extended family, family friends, family caregivers and other adults who the child perceives is a trusted person by his/her own parents.
People who sexually abuse children often relate well to kids.
They befriend children, and may be considered “good with kids”. They may seek opportunities to work with children as a child care provider, recreation leader, coach, youth group leader, etc. They find places like arcades, playgrounds, or swimming pools where they can get to know children so they are not seen as scary strangers. They might have the latest and best video games and electronics and offer to share these with neighborhood kids.
It can be hard to recognize.
We don't always see when someone has crossed the line between a healthy relationship with a child and a sexually inappropriate or abusive relationship with a child. Sexual abuse often happens within the context of a relationship. It would be rare for someone to sexually abuse a child without first creating a relationship with the child. This can lower the defenses of both the child and the adults in their life.
Sexual abuse often begins through testing boundaries.
People who sexually abuse children often “test” the child and others around them by gradually pushing boundaries. For example, they may start by patting the child on the back. Later they put their arm around the child. Next, their hand slips lower. By moving slowly, they increase the chance that their behavior will seem okay and they decrease the chance that anyone will speak up.
People who sexually abuse children don’t want children to tell.
They often offer a combination of privileges, treats, and threats to keep the child from telling. A babysitter may let the child stay up later than they are supposed to or may let them watch movies that the parents wouldn’t approve. They may give an older child alcohol or drugs or show them pornography all as a way to encourage a child to keep secrets from their parents. Often they will make a child feel special by telling them they are the only one they can talk to or by giving the child gifts or treats.
While some people who sexually abuse children will threaten to hurt the child or their family, many times threats are more subtle. They may act confused: “I wouldn’t have done that if I knew you didn’t like it”. They may attempt to make the child feel responsible: “you’re the one who always wanted to sit on my lap”. They may play on the child’s dependence on them: “If you tell someone, I’m going to jail.” When talking with children about sexual abuse, it is important to explain how someone may try to trick them into thinking it’s not okay to tell anyone else about what is going on.
It can be easy to talk ourselves out of our concerns.
It is hard to imagine that someone we may know and love could also behavior inappropriately towards a child. Some common ways we talk ourselves out of our concerns include:
- I must have misunderstood what he said.
- It only happened once. And he promised it would never happen again.
- He’s the perfect father. He spends so much time with the kids. He even coaches their teams.
- But my child loves to spend time with him. Surely she would be afraid if something inappropriate was going on.
- She was just playing with that child. There couldn’t have been anything sexual going on.
- He’s married and he has kids of his own. He’s not going to be interested in kids for sex.
- I’m sure he didn’t mean to touch her like that. It was just an accident.
- My child would tell me if something inappropriate was going on and he hasn’t said a thing.
- I’m sure my 12-year-old was just curious. He’s too young to be thinking about sex.
- Grandpa always holds the kids like that. He’s done that for years and no one has complained before.
- She acts so old for her age. No wonder he thought it was okay to touch her like that.
- That child always wants to spend time with him. She asked to go over to his house.
- He’s only saying that to get the bigger kids in trouble.
- It’s just because of what they were watching on TV, computer, ipod, etc.
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