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One in three girls will have suffered some form of sexual abuse by the time they reach 18. Time to worry?

Sexual abuse is something many parents, especially parents of daughters, are afraid of. It's undeniable that concerns over the possibility of sexual abuse are very much justified; according to some figures, one in three girls will have suffered some form of sexual abuse by the time they reach 18. There is something we can do that is much more powerful than worry, though. There are very concrete steps we can take to prevent sexual abuse from happening.

News reports, books, and even psychologists often give us the message that sexual abuse can happen to anyone. It is, unfortunately, true that childhood sexual abuse is very prevalent. But the message that it can happen to anyone shouts that there is nothing that can be done to prevent it, and that is just not the case.

Sexual abuse usually happens after a sexual predator meticulously plans his crime, which is normally not limited to one occasion.

Even opportunistic sexual predators actually do have to have that opportunity to be able to victimize a child. Sexual abuse of children comes with signs. Safety expert Gavin de Becker calls these signs calls pre-incident indicators or PINs, and they are always there.

Before sexual abuse takes place, it is the predator who can give you clues as to what is about to happen. After the victimization has become a fact, the child will join him in giving signs. One mother attacked me for making this point on an online parenting forum. According to her, my statement implied that the parents of a child who became a sexual abuse victim always carry at least some blame. And according to her, these men just strike when the opportunity comes and because most abusers are men already (well) known to the family, could be relatives, there is really no way to know in advance.

This woman's point of view was that of a mother, a mother who worried about her child. She didn't wish to entertain the thought that, in the case her child was sexually abused, she would be to blame too, at least partially. My vantage point differs a bit. I'm a mother too, but I was also once a child victim of sexual abuse.

I say that the signs are always there, not to blame parents before a child was even victimized.

I say that the signs are always there and that those signs are very often obvious enough to be able to see because keeping one's eyes sincerely and widely open can make all the difference.

For a child, it can make the different between having been a potential victim, and being an actual victim.

So, what are those signs? They always vary, but in broad strokes you'll see something like this

The pedophile

Pedophiles who are complete strangers will need to find a way into your life, or your child's life, before they pose a danger. The pedophile who has targeted your child could theoretically be that dirty old man watching him at the playground, but he's much more likely to be the football coach, and even more likely to be a friend of the family, a step parent, an uncle or grandfather.

Child-on-child sexual abuse is a possibility that's frightening to many, but that exists too. Whatever group a predator belongs to, he will need access to the child. He needs you, the parent, out of the way to do his crime. Before he seeks access to the child (or manipulates the situation in such a way that access will be gained), the predator will try to win the parents' complete trust. If he is a close relative, this step may be skipped because the trust was already there.

He'll also try to win the child's trust... before shattering it completely. Gavin de Becker had this bit of simple but excellent advice in his book on child safety, Protecting the Gift: Parents should think long and hard about who to let into their child's life, but decisions about who should leave a child's life should be made swiftly.

That inner voice telling you a person is dangerous is very much enough cause.

The child

Sexual abuse is traumatic, hence children who are victims of sexual predators will show signs of trauma. What those are depends on the child's age and character.

Victims can withdraw, dissociate, act out in various ways, become fearful, and display unusual behavior when in close proximity to the abuser, or when he is mentioned.

Your child actually telling you she has been sexually abused (or is being sexually abused) is by far the most obvious sign.

Take your child seriously if this happens.

Listen, and don't panic.

Victims of sexual abuse tend to feel it was their fault, so don't do anything that will add to that feeling. I don't really feel like sharing my own story here, but I will say that there were signs before, during, and after from the predator as well as the victim, me.

Now, many years later, I still often feel that it was my fault, even though I cognitively know better than that, and even though I've been in therapy.

Being a victim of sexual abuse doesn't end life, and having been a victim doesn't define me. It certainly left its mark though, and I sincerely hope that more parents will come to trust to listen to their intuition, their children, and the predator himself so that they can keep their children safe. The single best way to prevent harm of any kind is to be able to entertain the possibility of harm.

When you think it couldn't possibly happen, you won't be able to see it.

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