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Childhood Sexual Abuse: ‘Preparation and Response’ Instead of ‘Prevention’

Dissatisfied childThere is a basic need in our society to change the approach to how we prepare our children for possible sexual assault or abuse. It is wrong for us to teach “sexual assault prevention” to young children, perpetuating this awful suggestion that a small child has ANY capacity whatsoever to prevent his/her own abuse. Instead we need to teach healthy attitudes toward sexuality, and to prepare our children for interactions with “tricky people.”

I grew up in the nineties, in the height of paranoia about “stranger danger,” and in-school presentations about allowing your parents to check your Halloween candy for razor blades. We were taught to be afraid of being snatched up off the sidewalk. We were given NOTHING in terms of preparation for abuse by family or acquaintances (or friends or teachers or school staff or parents’ friends…), even though we (“we” as a society, the informed adults) knew, even back then, that statistically acquaintances were much more likely than strangers to target kids.

So much good has happened in the past 20 years. We even have the beginnings of teaching teenagers and college students about consent. But the issue of tricky people still remains. A therapist asked me once if I felt so much guilt about my own childhood abuse because I didn’t “fight him tooth and nail.” And that is spot-on. I didn’t fight him tooth and nail. I didn’t fight him at all. I had told him I didn’t want that…so when he did it anyway, I just looked away and cried silent tears. He was a tricky person. And then he did it again. And again. And again. And I didn’t know what to do. I was confused…but also flattered…scared…and also in physical pain…and also…I don’t know. Lost.

When we begin to delve into these issues, we find that the best resource our kids have available to them is their instinct. If they find themselves in uncomfortable situations, even with “trusted adults,” they need to know that it’s okay to scream & wiggle, and that it’s okay to run away. But possibly even more than that, they need to know that it is okay to NOT do those things. That it is okay to be scared and not know what to do. It is okay to do nothing at all.

Then afterwards, WHATEVER their responses were in the moment, they CHOSE RIGHT, because the only goal in that situation is to SURVIVE.

“Oh your response was to lay still and take it? YOU CHOSE RIGHT.”

“Oh your response was to kick him in the crotch and poke his eyes? YOU CHOSE RIGHT.”

“Oh your response was to disclose to another 10-year-old? YOU CHOSE RIGHT.”

It’s too late to undo the choice at that point, so we as adults are tasked with accepting it, and thereby not making the situation worse.

We can’t change the fact that these abuses are going to happen. And children CERTAINLY can’t change that fact. The two things we CAN change are 1. The way we prepare kids for these situations, and 2. The way we handle their disclosures afterward.

Kids are taught to fear strangers, but staggeringly more often than not, strangers will come out as helpers in tough situations: police, fire, ambulance, store or restaurant staff, bystanders when Mom collapses in public…etc. But kids are only rarely taught to fear tricky people…warned that even adults lie, or make up stories to make kids think they have no choice in a situation. Just because this is your mom’s best friend doesn’t mean Mom said it was okay for her to touch you there…or take those pictures of you. There are differences between good secrets and bad secrets, and even a 5-year-old is often mature enough to understand that a birthday surprise party is okay, but someone touching you in your swimsuit-parts is a secret you shouldn’t keep.

I’m not advocating (as a parent or as a caregiver) sending kids into unnecessarily dangerous situations. What I am advocating is that we teach kids to trust themselves; teach them that they are smart enough and brave enough to handle hard situations, and then in the aftermath comfort and console them, telling them that we trust them, and that we know that they made the best possible decisions in the impossible situations in which they found themselves.

We have this epidemic of kids who are afraid to disclose, because they have been taught their whole lives that strangers are the problem (stranger danger)…so when the abuse comes from somewhere else, they are afraid of being blamed. Likewise they are taught their whole lives to scream and wiggle, so if the moment happens and they don’t fight back…they are afraid of being blamed. And unfortunately, those fears are completely founded.

Try though we might, we cannot wave our hands and prevent sexual abuses from happening. What we CAN do is prepare our kids beforehand, and encourage them afterwards. We can tell them that they are good, they are right, and they are strong. And we are not mad at them; we are proud, because they did the right thing, no matter what that thing was.


Childhood Sexual Abuse: ‘Preparation and Response’ Instead of ‘Prevention’

Liz Briggs

Liz Briggs: Writer and thinker…stark-raving Borderline in the throes of ECT, striving each day to accomplish ONE THING that makes me feel like a responsible and contributing member of society.

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APA Reference
Briggs, L. (2018). Childhood Sexual Abuse: ‘Preparation and Response’ Instead of ‘Prevention’. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Jan 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.