Dr. Shani Zoldan-Verschleiser, AuD., LCSWNEFESH International Publications and Information
The sexual abuse of children is very different than adult sexual abuse and needs to be handled in very different ways. With Child Sexual Abuse (CSA), physical force or violence is rarely used. The perpetrators more often try to manipulate a child’s trust and hide the abuse. The perpetrator, most of the time, is known and trusted to the child. The abuse often occurs over many weeks or even years and is typically repeated, becoming more invasive over time. Predators will usually use a process known as grooming, where the predator engages the child in a slow and gradual process of sexualizing the relationship. Intrafamilial CSA accounts for about one third of child sexual abuse cases and usually involves boundary breaches that lead up to sexual behaviors.
The research on prevention points to school-based educational programs and managing offenders and to school-based intervention programs. What does prevention of CSA as an intervention education look like? In part it consists of giving kids the direct message that no one is allowed to touch their private parts but, given the nature of how most sexual abuse occurs, broadening our ways of thinking about and implementing prevention seems crucial.
Children learn by example. They watch and listen to the grown-ups around them very carefully. Modeling healthy relationships will help children gauge what an unhealthy relationship would look and feel like. Any healthy relationship must have good boundaries which consist of both external and internal aspects. Healthy internal boundaries allow us to know what belongs to us and what does not. If a child pulls back when we are standing a bit too close or asks us to not to touch them when we put your hand on their shoulder in what we thought was a bonding moment, having healthy internal boundaries allows us to separate the child’s need from our own. If we feel rejected in that moment and allow the child’s response to affect what we know about ourselves, we lose an opportunity to highlight so many prevention lessons. We get stuck in pain, which often gets covered with anger, and a message of discipline, judgment, and disrespect gets delivered to the child. The child is left with the belief that what I am comfortable with upsets others, I need to override my own needs to keep the peace. If healthy internal boundaries are in place, we can see the child’s needs as separate from us, we can offer a moment of respect, highlighting body boundaries, offering a menu of other options such as a high five, fist bump or just a positive compliment. We can teach the crucial lesson that in healthy relationships it is acceptable, and even encouraged, to respect other’s personal space and comfort level.
Most abuse victims are groomed to desensitize them to touch that is inappropriate. Asking permission from children as much as we can, specifically in regard to touch, is another way of modeling body autonomy. Giving children the option of saying yes or no even to safe touch allows children to learn that they can slow down and tune in to their internal experience. This can look like simply noticing out loud that a child’s collar is turned upward and asking if it’s ok to fix it, or asking if it’s ok to hold their hand while they go down the slide, catch them if they are slipping off the monkey bars. In this way, children learn that they have the right to communicate a no, a right to noncompliance. In addition, children that have already been sexually abused can have a missing experience when being asked permission for touch and this can be the missing experience that encourages healing.
The aspects of our culture that we value for children such as a Polite and listen-culture needs to be separated out for unsafe situations and experiences. For prevention programs to be effective we must empower children, teach children to assess uncomfortable situations, trust their feelings, and find ways to seek help. This requires the adults in our children’s lives to be able to learn more about themselves, to learn our triggers and why it seems difficult to allow children to speak up about their needs and feelings. The research points to the effectiveness of school-based intervention education for a number of reasons. One of which is that our children spend most of their time in schools. They learn what it is like to have relationships outside of their families. They learn what they excel at, what struggles they have and how it feels to interact with different personalities. According to research, a teacher is the second most likely adult that a child will disclose abuse to after a mother. This fact points to the importance of that relationship and its influence. In addition, a teacher, a rebbe, or a principal automatically is in a position of power and commands respect. What better individuals can there be to teach children that they too deserve respect? They can do this by creating a culture where child empowerment doesn’t mean disrespect and where children can learn that while we teach them all the ways to protect their neshamos (souls), we can teach them to protect their guf (physical bodies) as well, and that the two can be connected.
About the author:
Dr. Shani Zoldan-Verschleiser, AuD., LCSW, is a trauma specialist, noted author, and speaker on parenting & child personal safety. Shani has written for the NYTimes and many other publications. Shani has presented to New York state lawmakers in assisting with legislation being passed. Dr.
Verschleiser co-founded Magenu.org, which created a researched based curriculum in child sexual abuse prevention.