It’s one of a parent's worst fears. Your child has had a few playdates with a slightly older friend and something feels off. After playing with this friend, your child acts differently in a way you can’t pin down. Is something going on?
Inappropriate touch between children
Child-on-child sexual abuse occurs when a prepubescent child is sexually abused by one or more other children or adolescent youths, and no adult is directly involved. The term has been defined as sexual activity between children that occurs without consent, without equality or as a result of coercion. This includes when one of the children uses physical force, threats, trickery or emotional manipulation to elicit cooperation. The harmful behavior may range from experimentation that has gone too far to serious sexual assault.
It’s difficult to determine how prevalent this form of sexual abuse is — it usually occurs outside of an adult’s direct supervision and once reported, is often dismissed by parents as “normal” behavior between kids.
According to an article in Psychology Today, children will frequently express a certain amount of sexual curiosity and exploration with other children of the same age, size, status and power. When they do this, it is usually done with a sense of genuine curiosity and wonderment, coupled with a considerable level of embarrassment when caught. When one child is older or more powerful, however, then the behavior should raise an immediate concern.
How parents can help educate their children
Understanding and accepting that children can victimize other children is an issue many of us struggle with. But we must be able to educate our kids on how to protect themselves from the possibility of sexually abusive and intrusive behavior of other children.
Deborah Rue, a therapist in Washington state, tells SheKnows that when parents talk about appropriate touch, it’s a natural moment to also teach that inappropriate touch from anybody, no matter their age, is not OK. She also encourages children to tell a safe grown-up if they are not sure if someone’s touch was appropriate or inappropriate.
Rue says when talking about this subject with kids, it’s useful to ask questions like, “What does appropriate (and consequently inappropriate) touch look like and feel like?”
“Lots of touch is fun and playful between kids, with the root concept being that appropriate touch is respectful and safe — anything else is not OK,” says Rue. It’s important to tell our children that good friends don't touch you in inappropriate ways or make you touch them in inappropriate ways. And she encourages parents to tell their children that if they feel uncomfortable, uneasy or nervous, then they need to say something or leave and tell.
Rue also says it's useful to extend the concept beyond sexual touch because often children express feeling unsafe, unsure or helpless more than they understand that something might be sexual. She tells parents to talk about how inappropriate touch feels (emotionally — not physically), which can help them identify it if it ever happens.
What parents should notice
“Listen for themes of power,” says Rue. Often the older child who is inappropriately touching the younger child uses his/her size and age to influence the younger child. Rue tells parents to watch for a desire to play with the older child combined with unsettled behavior after playing with the child. If this happens, it’s important to ask your child questions about their play.
“If there seems to be evasiveness in your child's answers, then modify the playing opportunities,” says Rue. Eliminating future opportunities to play with the child in question is critical. Additionally, having a policy of open doors when playing with other friends allows you to pop in and check on them intermittently. “If there seems to be an attempt to hide behavior, then change the boundaries so that all play is out in the open."
Why kids don’t tell
“Being inappropriately touched is confusing for a child,” says Rue. They often like the attention of the older child because it makes them feel important, so it can be confusing to have a fun game turn into something that feels uncomfortable.
When asked why they don’t tell, kids often say they are afraid of getting in trouble themselves or worry that the older child (the one doing the inappropriate touching) will also get in trouble and won't want to play with them anymore. Complicating matters is how often victims believe that they somehow caused the behavior. They're embarrassed because they know something isn't quite right, but feel like they contributed to the situation.
It's important for parents to affirm their child's courage in telling the truth and express how proud they are. That helps children to see that they are not responsible for the inappropriate touch. We play a significant role in keeping our kids safe, and part of that is creating an environment where these difficult issues can be talked about.