Protecting children from sexual abuse

child and mother

Expert Opinion Panel
Freda Briggs – Emeritus Professor in Child Development


Protecting children from sexual abuse

Professor Freda Briggs | 4 February 2012
Paper presented for WA Education Department Parents’ Conference
Professor Freda Briggs, AO. University of South Australia

child and mother

what we want to do

is help you to make your own children safer…

I’m here to talk about child sexual abuse which I realize is a very uncomfortable subject. Given that 1 in every 4-5 children are sexually abused, it’s inevitable that some of you were abused when you were young. If you haven’t talked about it you may feel guilty ..embarrassed ..not realising that children are never to blame for what adults or older kids do to them. If what happened still worries you, please see a counsellor or ring ASCA.

If reading or listening to information about abuse brings back reminders and makes you feel uncomfortable, take a deep breath ..take a walk round the hall but please don’t stop listening because what we want to do today is to help you to make your own children safer.

First, who are the abusers?

In most cases they are people who were themselves sexually abused in childhood and started repeating it when they were young.. They enjoy manipulating and controlling people and that makes young and disabled children most vulnerable. Nobody stopped them and now, as adults, they continue to control. They are often weak characters -some enjoy being cruel to those who can’t fight back. I want to emphasise that child sex abuse is a habit. It isn’t usually a one-off offence although offenders pretend it is when they’re caught. It happens because they see children as sex objects. They are usually obsessed with sex. They carefully plan what they do and befriend parents and whoever is in charge so that they can have better access to victims. When parents trust them, they let them take children out .. they take boys fishing, boating, camping or to footy ..things that single mums don’t usually have time to do and children love. They look for children who are disabled, lonely and sad and boys who lack affectionate relationships with their dads. When we asked male victims what would have protected them, they all replied : education about their bodies.. and hugs, kisses and approval from their dads. Abusive dads are often alcoholics or drug addicts or they pretend to be highly and strictly religious – another power game.

Most offenders are people we know and trust. ..not strangers. They come from all walks of life – a judge suicide when accused. An Adelaide magistrate is in jail for 25 years. Charges are pending involving another six boys. Another magistrate got off when he appealed. Seemingly, the mother and daughter disagreed on the date that he was caught red-handed. A third was cleared because they could not prove the age of the boy at the time of the alleged offences. A boy accused his magistrate dad of taking him to paedophile parties. This is a worry. In the UK, police are investigating a large number of politicians who are alleged to have abused children in the 1980’s. Given that politicians are responsible for creating laws and magistrates and judges are responsible for administering justice, this should be a significant concern to the public. And don’t forget that jails are now home to a large number of priests. If you can’t trust magistrates, politicians, judges and priests to protect your children…who can you trust? The answer is no-one.

Paedophiles can be police officers, lawyers, teachers, sports coaches, social workers.. school bus and taxi drivers (especially those taking children to special schools), -baby-sitters..your next door neighbours and, if you’re very unfortunate, your partners or relatives. Paedophiles are often very popular with children. They listen to them, booste their egos, play with them and buy them treats. They seek out single parent families either to become mum’s partner, handyman or the lodger.

If an adult is getting over-friendly with your children, ask yourself why someone would choose a child for company instead of the company of other adults. The trouble is we can’t teach children to distrust everyone. That would be awful. Instead we need to do everything possible to keep children safe from harm and that means supervising them sensibly and helping them to gain confidence and independence while giving them the information they need to protect themselves.

Driving children everywhere isn’t the answer. You can’t supervise them all the time. Sex offenders are bold and abuse kids while parents are in the same car or the same room. The greater the risk, the greater their excitement. What we have to do is ensure that children can tell the difference between behaviour that’s OK and behaviour that isn’t – how to avoid it and what to do if it happens.

The fact is that all children are at risk of sexual abuse quite simply because they are children. Furthermore, the way we parent makes them more vulnerable. Let me give you some examples.


Most parents teach children that to be good they have to be obedient. How many of you said “Be a good boy/girl and do as you’re told” when you left your children with babysitters and relatives?”.

When we talked to sex offenders in jail we found that many began their criminal activities as child-minders. In NZ 10 in every 100 children under the age of 8 had already been sexually abused by babysitters. ..both male and female and often their older cousins. When the kids didn’t want to ‘do sex stuff’, they were told, “Your mum told you to do what I say”.

Children said they have to obey babysitters even if they know its wrong. Why? “Because babysitters get mad with you if you don’t do what they want”, they said. When they tried to tell their mothers about abuse they only gave hints that no one understood.. “The babysitter told me to get undressed” . “The babysitter was mean”.

The message is: choose your babysitters carefully. Never employ men or youths. Never use anyone who has been abused. Check them out with previous employers to see if their children had any concerns. Involve and listen to your children: Ask whether they feel comfortable with the person? Children’s gut feelings are often more reliable than ours. When you go out, tell your children where you are going, give them your phone number and tell them to contact you if they are worried about something. And if they ring you for what seems to be a trivial reason, don’t snarl because if you do, they may not ring you at all when something serious happens. What else can you do?

Introduce the correct names when children are young

It is much easier for children to report problems if they use the correct names for their body parts.

Call a vagina a vagina and a penis a penis NOT John Henry, pee pee…or anything else. Children gave me 20 different names for penis in one class of 6 year olds. (Golf set). The problem is that if a child goes to the teacher on yard duty and says, “Someone tried to touch my golf set”, the teacher wouldn’t have a clue what he meant. Probably no one used the correct names when you were kids.. My mother referred to everything below the waist as “bottom” or “down there”. I saw a flasher when I was 11 and although there was a policeman around the corner, I couldn’t report it because I didn’t have the necessary language.

Why do we avoid using the correct words? Probably because we don’t want to be embarrassed by our children referring to their private parts in public. You may have heard of the little girl who, after learning the word vagina, walked into church and in a voice that echoed round the building, said, “Mummy do all these ladies have vaginas?”

The old women were shocked – So what ?- Children embarrass us at least once in our lives. My daughter waited until we were walking down the aisle of York Minster…a massive cathedral with a massive echo to ask – in loud voice – what the F word meant. That took me completely by surprise and I replied, ‘Í’ll tell you later’.

The next job is to teach boys that their penis, bottom, scrotum or testicles and breasts are private parts of the body. A girl’s vagina, bottom and breasts are also private. Include breasts for boys because abusers often play with them to make them feel sexy.
Do your children know what private means?

It means Hands Off – no-one is allowed to touch them – tickle them – play with them – mess around with them… do sex stuff with them. No touching. Its not allowed.

Children need to know the importance of taking care of their bodies. Once they are old enough to wash and dry themselves, let them do it, emphasising that these parts are private and we have to look after them and not let anyone else touch them.

Include the mouth as a private place That’s because abusers use even the youngest of children to provide oral sex. Teach them all that no one is allowed to put anything yucky or stinky in their mouths. ..or if you can say it, that no one is allowed to put a penis in their mouths. If someone tries they must yell and tell.

Most kids realize that yucky stuff in the mouth can make them sick.

Child sex abuse is possible because of secrecy

Secrecy prevents children from reporting abuse. Abusers threaten victims that if they tell, terrible things will happen to them. ..They say “Its our special secret”. Father figures tell victims: “If you tell anyone I’ll go to jail and your mum won’t have any money and you’ll have no home and it will be all your fault”. Threats may involve killing family pets. This causes a lot of anxiety for the child.

Another nasty trick is to tell victims : “Your mum knows what I do and its OK” or “Don’t bother telling your mother because she wont believe you”. Victims then blame their mothers for the rest of their lives. Some children keep abuse secret because they enjoy the treats and the flattery that comes with it.
Children who are being abused often ask parents and teachers: “Do we always have to keep a secret” and most adults say YES because they think of nice secrets about presents and surprises. If you can do it, adopt a no secrets policy in your home. Let your babysitters know that you don’t have secrets. If that’s too hard, teach children that we must only keep good surprises about birthday and Christmas presents but we never keep secrets about our bodies – We mustn’t keep secrets that make us worried. We must tell them to mum, the teacher or someone who will help.

You need to tell your children that if someone tries to touch their private body parts – or if a man or youth asks a child to touch his penis, they must say “No, that’s not allowed” and get away as fast as they can and tell the teacher -if it’s at school – and tell you when they get home. It has to be stopped straightaway or the children will be abused again and again.

Unless you talk to your children about these things they won’t tell you when something goes wrong. That’s because they know that rude behaviour is naughty. They think that naughty means it’s their fault, they’ll get into trouble and parents will be mad with them. You must tell your kids again and again that if someone is rude to them its never their fault – they must tell you – you’ll believe them and you promise not to tell them off – and mean it. The important thing is that its reported and stopped.

Tell your kids that it’s OK for them to play with their own bodies in the privacy of their bedroom or bathroom but no-one else is allowed to touch them… and they’re not allowed to touch other children’s private places. If someone does, they must yell and tell.

You need to practice yelling because even the noisiest kids freeze when someone behaves sexually. Nothing comes out of their mouths. Teach them to shout, “Stop that! Its not allowed”…Let them practice yelling. They have to yell really loud to attract attention.

To get help quickly children need clear reporting skills

Unless children know the words for penis, vagina, breasts and bottom, most only give hints that they’ve been abused. If someone puts his hand in their pants, they might say, “Mum, I don’t like the way he tickles me”… or “Mum I don’t like the way he teases me” or “I don’t like the games he plays”. They think they’ve reported it and that you now know what’s happening when you dont. If children complain about someone’s behaviour, ask what the person does … how the game is played, where does he tickle you or what does he do when he teases you.

Boys are at high risk of abuse

Lots of people think that boys are not at risk of sexual abuse ..that it only happens to girls. Not true!

Boys are sexually curious at an earlier age than girls. They don’t realize that sexual misbehaviour is wrong. Boys are sometimes abused by older boys at camps, in swimming pool changing rooms and in toilets. They don’t tell anyone because they are afraid of being bashed up by the perpetrators and disbelieved by adults. Adult abusers usually bribe boys (and some girls) with alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and pornography. Porn is used routinely to stimulate sexual curiosity and lower resistance. “Look everyone does it. They even make movies. Its fun.. why don’t we do it”.. Boys are given oral sex and are told: “You’ve had your fun now its my turn”. If boys say they don’t want to join in, they’re reminded that they drank beer, smoked marijuana .. cigarettes – watched porn… and if mum knew they’d get into big trouble. They are convinced that what happened is their own fault.. they’re bad kids and so they remain silent, blaming themselves.. Boys also keep abuse secret if their bodies responded to sexual touching… as most do. The abuser says, “See wanted it… you liked it .. that’s because you’re gay”. If boys want to escape, they’re blamed because they didn’t say No in the first place. Boys are worried that their mums will be upset and that their school mates will think they’re homosexual and tease them. They then worry about whether they ARE gay. So they stay silent…

Boys are curious about adult male bodies..about erections, ejaculation and masturbation. They need information about these things long before puberty. There are some good, cheap books to help you with sex education – such as the series with titles such as Boys’Secret Business and Girls’Secret Business with special books for children with disabilities (obtainable via the internet).

Listen to your children

Most children think their parents won’t support them to stop abuse. They say that adults don’t listen to kids…grown-ups stick together…they don’t believe kids. They told us that when they sought their parent’s help to stop unwanted touching, their parents defended the adults. The boy who complained that grandad rubbed his whiskery chin on his face and it hurt was told not to be a wimp. The girl who lived in a hotel and was kissed by drunk men wasn’t protected by dad because he didn’t want to offend customers and lose trade. The girl who wanted mum to stop aunty’s wet sloppy kisses was told that aunty would be upset. Mum should have said, “I’ll have a word with her and tell her you’re growing up and don’t want to be kissed any more”. .. showing that she was prepared to help. By sticking up for the adults, we teach our children that their feelings don’t count and they have to put up with bad touching to please grown ups. That is the wrong message for protecting children. Your children need to know that they can rely on you.

Doctors used to touch children without asking their permission. Now they are expected to ask. I suggest that you start doing this at home. Ask, “Can I kiss you good night”. My grandchildren like being tickled. I tell them to shout ‘Stop’ when it hurts and they want me to stop. They need to be in control. Stick up for them when their relatives tickling, saying, “I know you like it. You’re laughing”. Ask the person to take note when a child says Stop.. If your children tell you that someone has behaved sexually, please believe them. It takes a great deal of courage to make a report. Thank them for telling you.

Say you believe them and want to help.

Say this happens to lots of kids but it shouldn’t because its not allowed… furthermore, the person who did it probably knew it wasn’t allowed.

Say there are people employed to help kids to stop abuse and you will have to tell one of those people. Then ring police or the child abuse helpline the number for which is in the front of your telephone directory. Abusers don’t stop unless they are reported..and some don’t stop even then

Children with disabilities

So far I’ve talked about children in general. Unfortunately children with disabilities are even more likely than others to experience abuse. Some people think it doesn’t matter so much if victims are disabled because they don’t understand. Some say you can’t believe children with learning disabilities and they make up stories of abuse – None of this is true. Young children don’t make up allegations of sexual abuse – it is beyond their imagination unless of course they’ve already been abused.

For years people said that if someone was raped they must have asked for it – or if you were bashed you must have done something to deserve it. Not true. These stories were put around to help abusers. And how about women sex offenders?

Many people don’t think that the abuse of boys by women is serious because it doesn’t hurt. For young boys, the real damage is letting the tiger out of the cage, as they put it. Once their interest in sex has been aroused, boys become obsessed with it and are quickly spotted by more damaging male sex offenders. Then they are abused again and again. Those who accept abuse as a normal part of life are the ones most likely to become sex offenders risking life in jail.

People who abuse children with learning disabilities convince themselves that their victims wanted it, liked it…deserved it…irrespective of how loudly they protested and irrespective of how young they were. Abusers make the excuse that the children are already damaged (so it doesn’t really matter).

What I want to emphasise is that sexual abuse damages all children: it destroys trust. It makes children anxious and worried. They blame themselves and feel dirty. When children have a disability, abuse doubles the children’s problems. They feel isolated, more anxious, fearful and confused, especially if the abuser is a trusted caregiver.

They blame themselves, feel guilty, embarrassed, more helpless, hopeless, frustrated and powerless than before.

They may be angry with themselves, the abuser and especially their family if parents didn’t listen, believe them or provide protection.

Stranger Danger

I left stranger danger until last because strangers are not the biggest danger to your children. What you also need to know is that kids up to age ten don’t know what a stranger is. They think it’s a man who wears a black balaclava, has evil eyes, leers and anyone who doesn’t look like that isn’t a stranger. Women are never strangers. Young children gain concepts of safety from the adults and if adults appear kind and smile, they are thought to be trustworthy.

Given that children see us talking to strangers every day and sometimes we seek help from strangers, we need prepare children for situations where they might encounter dangerous situations rather than identify dangerous people. Demonstrate and practice the safest thing to do if a car pulls up and the driver wants them to get in the car. What if they know the driver? Teach them never to go anywhere with anyone if you don’t know where they are. When you visit a big shopping centre, discuss what to do and where to meet if they get lost. Show them how to access the public address system to make a lost child announcement. Ask them to work out what they could do to stay safe if they got lost at a sports event, the show, a street pageant or wherever there are large groups of people. What would be the safest thing to do if they got on the wrong bus…if the man sitting next to them put his hand on their leg. If they give silly answers, don’t tell them off. Just ask, “What might happen if you did that? Can you think of something safer?”

Thank them for trying.

Unfortunately children with disabilities are vulnerable to drivers of special school buses and taxis when they sit on the front seat. The good news is that children with serious learning difficulties can be taught to stay safe, especially if they have a good program at school and family members use the lessons at home. Children with disabilities need lots of reminders but it has been done and can be done. Your children will be much more confident if they know the rules and what to do if someone breaks them.


  1. Choose child-minders carefully. New minders should be checked out with previous employers. Did they have any reason to suspect them of any misbehaviour?
  2. Listen to your children and help them to stop touching that they find uncomfortable
  3. Introduce and use correct words for private body parts
  4. Teach children that mouths are private
  5. Make the rule that no-one is allowed to do sex stuff to kids
  6. Encourage children to wash and dry their own private parts
  7. Teach children that no one is allowed to touch, play around with or tickle the private parts of their bodies
  8. Teach them to hold out their arms with hands vertical, yell and say “Stop that! Its not allowed”
  9. Ban secrets
  10. Help children to practice clear reporting skills
  11. Ask children what would be the safest thing to do in a wide range of possibly unsafe situations (“What is…?”)
  12. Help children to become independent

Freda Briggs
Emeritus Professor in Child Development


Dr Freda Briggs AO is Emeritus Professor in Child Development at the University of South Australia and author of “Smart Parenting for Safer Kids”. “Smart Parenting for Safer Kids”, reviewed by here, gives tips on keeping children safe in a wide range of situations from cyber space and sexual abuse to bullying. The book is available in all good bookstores and can be ordered by phone on 03 9681 7275 or online at JoJo Publishing
You can read more of Freda Briggs’s Profile here.

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