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How to protect your child from sexual abuse

Updated on March 9, 2013

Who is a danger to your child?

MANY parents are so worried about their children falling prey to pedophiles that they no longer allow their children to walk to or from school, play in local parks unattended or wander the streets with a group of friends.

Whilst these precautions are all sensible, the dangers posed by pedophiles are more often than not posed by people who are trusted by the parents and known to the child. Parents who have unwittingly allowed their child to be preyed on by a trusted friend, relative or professional acquaintance are often horrified that they did not notice what was happening. They are also confronted by having placed their trust in someone they judged as trustworthy only to find their trust has been betrayed. Every adult can help free children from suffering sexual abuse and give them hope to recover.

Despite speaking with many mothers whose children have been sexually abused, I have not yet found one who instinctively ‘knew’ what was happening and was able to save their child, whether the offender was a member of the family, a trusted acquaintanceor professional person.

This is a sobering problem, especially given that it is also very difficult to spot pedophiles. They do not stand out in a crowd. They could be aged from mid teens or into their 90s, they are almost always ‘good with children’, they come from all social classes, education levels and professions.They often hold positions of power.

The only people who know for sure who the pedophiles are, are the victims. They often suffer in silence, alone and are unable to escape. The only way then, for society to identify, prosecute and remove these dangerous individuals from the community is to listen carefully to children, to prevent abuse before it begins, to give victims every possible assistance to recover and to report offenders to the police.

Listen carefully to your children

Careful listening involves listening to more than words. Children who are being sexually abused most often have been threatened to keep the crimes of the offender secret. Children who are being abused, then, are most likely NOT to tell anyone.

They are likely also to be especially careful not to let anyone know or suspect what is happening to them. The only clues they might give will be subconscious.

Parents of abuse victims who eventually discover their child has been sexually assaulted can usually see only in retrospect some minor change in behaviour or demeanour, or that the child is ‘not their usual self’ but nothing more definitive. These are the subtle clues which all adults, parents, teachers, sport coaches, doctors and others must learn to read if we are to save children. In many cases of abuse, there are adults such as teachers, who know the child and have suspicions or concerns about them but don't know how to confirm or discount their concerns.

Young children’s drawings can often give subconscious clues if the child is being abused.

South Australian child protection expert Professor Freda Briggs says children who are victims of sexual abuse and don’t have the language or permission to disclose what is happening will often draw pictures of what is happening. They may draw themselves with no arms, no mouth or no face even though they draw arms and faces on pictures of other people . They incorporate phallic symbols, choose 'angry' colours, such as red, purple and black when they have a free choice. Children who have been abused also commonly draw offenders with big smiles but draw themselves as sad. Young children who have been orally abused may draw oval mouths with exaggerated pointed teeth.

Pictures can be a useful indicator but Professor Briggs warns that not all child abuse victims express their emotions in drawings and the lack of sexually explicit pictures should not be interpreted as evidence that abuse has not occurred.

Older children who have been abused are unlikely to be able to ‘tell the secret’ even if they are directly asked whether they are being sexually abused. We must find other ways to determine if a child is in danger.

Who knows the secret?

Professor Briggs has formulated a series of questions which can help adults who are concerned about a child to get enough information from the child to determine whether further action is needed. The adult should first explain to the child ‘I am really concerned about you. Something is bothering you. Is it something or somebody? If the problem is a person, ask where the problem person is, whether at home, at school or somewhere else.

The second question ‘Is it a secret?’ reveals if the problem is an illness or emotional or relationship upset or whether it is something the child believes they must keep secret.

If the problem is not a secret, the child can explain the problem and get help to address it.

If the problem is a secret then it is important to find out more.

Asking the child ‘who else knows the secret’, might reveal the name of a sex offender/s and possibly other victims or conspirators. Be prepared not to look shocked or disbelieving at anything the child says. For example, the child might tell you the babysitter knows the secret and he/she doesn’t like the games they play. The child might say an uncle and aunt know the secret and a cousin knows the secret. It may be that the uncle is offending, the aunt is aware but has not stopped the offending and that a cousin is also a victim.

The final question is designed to determine the level of fear the child has of telling the secret. Asking ‘what will happen if you tell the secret?’will give an indication of the seriousness of the problem - offenders usually make some kind of threat to prevent the child from telling anyone what is happening or tell the child no one will believe them if they tell.

I have known victims who were threatened that other family members would be abused or killed if they told or that the child would be put in jail or sent away. If the child reveals, for example that ‘Mummy will die’ or "Police will take me away" if they tell the secret, the child is obviously very frightened and is likely to be a victim of serious offences. The child needs immediate assurance that they will be protected. Expert help such as a juvenile aid bureau police officer should be immediately called if the child indicates any physical or emotional threat has been made by an adult to the child or to other people.

To report suspected offences against children contact your local police or the Child Safety and Sexual Crime Group.

For more information on protecting children, see Teaching Children to Protect Themselves: A Resource for teachers and adults who care for young children, by Freda briggs and Michael McVeity, published by Allen and Unwin.

Print and keep these questions


  1. I am really concerned about you. Something is bothering you. Is it something or somebody?
  2. Is the problem person at home, at school or somewhere else?
  3. Is it a secret?
  4. Who else knows the secret?
  5. What will happen if you tell the secret?

Please print out the questions and keep them in your purse or wallet.

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