• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 21st December, 2011

Tapping the power of prevention in self-protection

A review of child sexual abuse research has uncovered strong opinion among parents that all preschool and child care centers should have self-protection programs and that the skills should also be taught at home. But for those initiatives to work, a more fundamental problem needs to be tackled. The same US research suggests that most children, with or without a history of sexual abuse, have little sexual knowledge. They cannot identify a potentially abusive situation, nor do they know the correct terms for their genitalia. To compound the anxiety, offenders are known to target just those vulnerable children who have low levels of sexual awareness. Children who can name the parts of their own bodies are better protected and, should the need arise, are more able to make accurate, compelling disclosures. The US meta-analysis of 21 articles dealing with six prevention and body safety training and education programs for children and young people aged between three and 18 sheds some light on what is likely to be most effective. Many of the studies reviewed by researchers at Florida International University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey showed positive results among school-aged children. Benefits included an increased awareness of child sexual abuse and potentially abusive situations, a greater sense of safety and control and more positive feelings about their genitalia. Preschool children in particular learned that it was not their fault if abuse occurred and that they should tell someone – and the range of people to whom they felt able to make safe disclosures was enlarged. (Younger children find it more difficult to make disclosures because it requires advanced memory and communication skills, so this was a significant finding.) Discussion strengthens child-parent bondingParental involvement turned out to be particularly important in school-based programs and for preschool children. It reduced the secrecy surrounding child sexual abuse, stimulated parent-child discussions of sexuality and strengthened child-parent bonding – all of which tended to lessen the risk of abuse. Practicing self-protection skills and repeating training routines also emerged as important aspects of a successful approach. Leaving training to parents had serious limitations, however. They included the risk of spreading inaccurate information, reluctance to warn children about relatives (despite the evidence that most perpetrators are family members), and lack of insight into how children can be coaxed, groomed or lured. Research into child sexual abuse continues to be fraught with ethical and practical difficulties, which make answers to the key questions harder to find. These questions include the extent to which self-protection programs reduce rates of sexual abuse, the effect of individual, family, socio-economic and cultural factors on children’s and parents' responses to programs, and the effectiveness of various forms of presentation and instruction. Child sexual abuse is a public health problem whose victims are among the most vulnerable in any community. Self-protection programs are unlikely to stop abuse, but the analysis suggests that they help children identify and avoid potentially abusive situations, provide them with disclosure skills and ensure that disclosure is properly handled. **********Reference: Kenny, M. C., Thakkar-Kolar, R. R., Ryan, E. E., & Runyon, M. K. (2008). Child Sexual Abuse: From Prevention to Self-Protection.Child Abuse Review, 17, 36-54.

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