How to protect our children from sexual abuse

Last night I attended a deeply powerful evening of talks to raise awareness about the dangers of sexual abuse.  The talks were given by a psychologist, a Beit Shemesh police officer in charge of sexual abuse investigations, and three survivors of abuse who each shared part of their personal stories.

I took notes to share with you what was said but to sum up each talk would take away from them all.  Instead, I’ll share what I felt the takeaway messages from the event were.

Sexual abuse is pervasive, it is deeply damaging, and it is only by becoming educated that we can combat this horrific scourge.

The first step towards protecting our children and community from sexual predators is understanding what the problem is.  Sexual predators are in every community, in every city and they don’t look like the pervert that you learned as a young child to stay away from – you know, the derelict wino with a bottle in a paper bag and grubby fingernails. They usually look just like the kind of person you’d trust your child with – they work very hard to cultivate this image because it’s this facade that gains them access to children.

80 – 90% of abusers are someone the child knows.  To me, this means that a big chunk of our efforts and awareness needs to go towards making sure that adults or older children whom our children spent time with don’t have have unsupervised one-on-one time together.  Please read what I wrote here about the grooming process; it’s critical to understand how predators operate.

Years ago, I remember a classmate years ago sharing some information with me when I was about 11.  Being the age that I was, I heard what she described but wasn’t able to process what she was saying.  I now understand that she was raped in the public bathrooms on a class trip.  At that time, I told her to tell the teacher and she told me the teacher told her she was making it up and not to talk to anyone about it.

This response sounds really horrible – and it is.  And unfortunately it’s very common.

How in the world can we rub salt on the gaping emotional and physical wounds that abused children have already experienced by responding like this?

We deny what is uncomfortable because it’s easier to look away than to deal with the uncomfortable truths in front of us.   It’s easier to blame the victim than deal with the abuser, easier to say a child is making something up than to believe that someone we think is trustworthy is capable of horrendous actions.  This is part of what this evening was about, to get people to stop looking away and denying the pain of victims and start recognizing and taking steps to limit the damage of sexual predators.

The religious Jewish community has unfortunately historically been more supportive of abusers than victims, but this is changing as people become more educated. To make our communities safe for children we need to stop keeping sick and unhealthy secrets; we need to stop pretending that this doesn’t happen in our communities.  It does and it happens much more than it should because we’ve been focusing on looking good and keeping our image untarnished rather than on doing good and confronting evil.  Looking away empowers and protects predators and dramatically increases the risk for our children.

After hearing all of this information, it leaves a parent saying, “Okay, we understand how serious this is, but how in the world can we protect our kids from something so pervasive?” It’s frightening and overwhelming – after all, we can’t watch our kids every minute and it seems that short of that there’s no way to keep our kids safe.

A very helpful booklet filled with information was given out to attendees that covers prevention tips, red flag warning signs of potential sex offenders, boundaries, common tricks and lures, 10 proactive strategies for parents, facts and statistics, an explanation of grooming and more.  You can go to to read more information.

The part I personally struggle with about talking to my kids about this is not scaring them.  As a parent I have to do my part to proactively protect them, but there are situations when I’m not around that they need to know what is appropriate or what isn’t, and how to respond when something doesn’t feel right to them.

I don’t want them to feel the world is filled with scary, dangerous people waiting to hurt them but I also don’t want to casually give over information and downplay it to the point that it seems I’m saying something unimportant.  So what to do?

Rather than this being a bigger conversation that takes place a couple of times a year, I think an ongoing conversation is a way to discuss this in a way that doesn’t feel so intense and scary.  Talking about it in this way also increases the likelihood that our kids will better internalize the information.  Our focus should be on how to empower our kids with this information.

I’ve always stressed to my kids to listen to their instincts even if logically they can’t understand why they feel that way.  I’ve also continually stressed to them to respect one another’s boundaries, that the parts of the body covered by a bathing suit are private and that if anyone tells them to keep a secret to tell me right away.   These are all included in the ten basic rules.  Something I haven’t done but after reading the handouts is to practice with them different responses they can use if they felt uncomfortable in a situation.


5 thoughts on “How to protect our children from sexual abuse

  1. Not sure how to give a good intro to this information, so I will just say it: Here in Seattle we had someone (frum) come to speak to the parents about talking to our kids about sexual abuse in response to an incident. She said something along the lines of “…and when your children get an ‘ick vibe’…” and many of us were aghast, since the person who had committed the crimes (since convicted) had been a much beloved person who even during the abuse raised no such vibe. So even the education is sometimes not quite on target. It is such a hard struggle, and I wish none of us ever had to know of such a thing. Hard stuff indeed.

  2. Thank you so much Avivah for writing about this important issue. There’s been so much covering up, thankfully that tide seems to be turning. I wanted to bring to your attention Bracha Goetz’s wonderful book, “Let’s Stay Safe,” which includes body privacy and safety as one of many important safety topics to discuss with children. Another book of hers I haven’t read is “Talking About Private Places,” which focuses on Tznius guiding a sense of dignity and respect for the body, and coming to child safety from that angle.

    I also have an ongoing discussion whenever the issue comes up, matter-of-fact, not scary, just focusing on principles. When my son goes to shul with my husband, he told me he goes to the lobby sometimes, where the boys are. We talk about not taking any candy from anyone, or going with anyone, and always making sure my husband knows where he is, etc. When we go to the doctor, we talk about how the doctor is only able to check them under their clothes because I said it’s okay, I am in the room with them, and it’s the doctor’s job to help their bodies stay healthy. Nothing is foolproof, but we can try our best.

    1. I have never been comfortable with the carte blanche given to doctors. How long will it take before an abuser says he’s a doctor?

      I allow my kids to say no to a doctor as well, if they’re uncomfortable. It’s not Pikuach Nefesh at a regular checkup, and I don’t want them to override their instincts unnecessarily.

      If all children were well-versed in Hilchos Yichud and applied it to older children and adults of any gender, I imagine most abuse would be prevented.

  3. (From a blog reader) >> A few years ago you did a post about sexual predators and the grooming process, which I had never heard of. At that time I was growing very uneasy about a certain guest we were having very frequently for shabbos meals. We weren’t sure if we should take the drastic measure to ban him from our house or let him come sometimes but never left alone with the kids. After reading about the grooming process we realized he very eerily fit the profile of a “groomer”- the things I had been uneasy about but couldn’t explain why fit into this pattern- and it wasn’t safe to let our children come to view him a “safe” family friend, so we decided not to have him back. Thank you for bravely writing about a difficult topic and raising awareness through your blog. <<

  4. (From a blog reader) >>I saw your blog about sexual abuse and your hesitation with not scaring your children. As a survivor myself I can tell you its not always scary or painful. Some abuse doesn’t even feel abusive till later on in life. When a family friend molests a child in a non violent and gentle way, it’s not scary for the child. Uncomfortable. Yes. Awkward. Yes. But it’s the fact that it’s wrong that makes it wrong. If you teach your kids that certain things are inappropriate, illegal, then it’s really not scary. It’s very matter of fact. when I talk to my kids there’s no drama, I just say it as it is. If you are not alarmed and you trust your kids to be safe then they will pick up on that and get the information without the scariness. It’s not just about them not being abused, it’s also about them knowing right and wrong so they don’t abuse others. <<

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