Abuse Occurs in Ways We Least Expect: Keeping Children Safe at the Holidays
By Kendall Wolz
Mental Health and Wellness Manager at Mosaic Georgia
As the holidays are upon us, families and friends will gather around tables to share meals and spend time in each other’s company. Many people look forward to this time of the year to catch up with loved ones they may not get to see often. But for some, the holidays are filled with anxiety, fear, and potentially further harm. Over 90% of child sexual abuse victims know their abuser.1 As hard as it is to fathom, there is a disturbing possibility that a perpetrator could be involved in your holiday traditions.
The purpose of this post is to equip you and your children with strategies to prevent abuse during family gatherings and other holiday celebrations and to respond quickly and appropriately if your child discloses harm.
One of the most heart-wrenching impacts of child sexual abuse is the way it silences victims. The average age of disclosure of child sexual abuse is 52 years.2 Because of the power perpetrators wield over their victims, it is imperative we provide children the tools they need to speak if they experience harm.
Many of us rest in a false security when we gather with those we love. We may think, “no one here would hurt my child” or “there are so many people around and watching, nothing could happen here.” It may feel unbearable to accept the alternative.
When I was a child experiencing ongoing sexual abuse, there were many times my abuser was brazen enough to abuse me in the presence of others. He had manipulated and groomed me into compliance and silence. He knew that he if discreetly touched me inappropriately in a room full of people, I would not scream, I would not speak up. As I reflect on those painful moments, I recognize now what would have been helpful to me and might have prevented some of the harm I experienced.
1. People who say they love us may also harm us, and that does not make it okay.
Does your child know that even if someone says they love them, it is never okay for that person to hurt them? It is never okay for that person to make them feel scared, nervous, or icky. Can your child name an adult they will tell if someone makes them feel that way?
2. Secrets are never okay.
Have you talked about the differences between secrets and surprises with your child ahead of the holidays? If not, now is a great time to begin this conversation. The fundamental differences between secrets and surprises are broken down in one of my previous articles.
3. Empower your child with body autonomy.
Provide your child with the option of saying “no.” If your child doesn’t want to hug great uncle Bob and doesn’t want a kiss on the cheek from great aunt Sue, teach them phrases of polite decline. Then, tell Uncle Bob and Aunt Sue that they cannot hug or kiss your child if they resist or say no. Maybe your child is okay with a handshake, fist bump, or wave instead. Help your child recognize what feels safe to them.
4. Recognize the signs of grooming.
Unfortunately, in the early stages, grooming behaviors often mimic dynamics that occur in healthy relationships. This makes it hard to detect, initially. However, there are some things you can look for when an adult is grooming a child. Is there a person who suddenly begins to show an increased interest in your child? Maybe they have complimented your child’s athletic abilities or musical talents and show interest in supporting them in those areas. Are they spending time alone with your child? Have they started providing for your child in ways they did not previously? Reflecting on my own experience, one of the signs of grooming I recognize as an adult is my abuser inviting me to begin watching the television show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with him. Prior to the show airing, we never watched television together in his bedroom.
My intention is not to make you fearful about every person your child comes into contact with, but to make you aware that abuse does happen in the presence of other people. Just because it is a holiday does not mean an abuser will abstain from abusing.
If you have children, I hope you will take the time to talk about body rights and healthy touch.
If they appear fearful or nervous around certain people, do not brush it off as shyness- ask questions. Fight through the discomfort this type of conversation may bring.
Have these necessary conversations now.
If you suspect abuse and feel confused, scared, or overwhelmed about what to do next, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). If you live in the Gwinnett County area of Georgia and abuse has been disclosed, please call our Mosaic Georgia crisis line at 866-900-6019 to talk with an advocate who is there to provide you with the resources you need and support you through the process.