Skip to main content

Tell toddlers what's private about their bodies

By Cindy Christian, Special to CNN
updated 1:20 PM EDT, Thu June 21, 2012
 Cindy Cristian says the Sandusky trial is a reminder to parents to create an open environment for discussion of all subjects
Cindy Cristian says the Sandusky trial is a reminder to parents to create an open environment for discussion of all subjects
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cindy Christian says knowledge is crucial tool to preventing child sexual abuse
  • She says most offenders are adults known to a child, with power and trust they abuse
  • She says victims often obedient, from damaged homes; may not show specific signs of abuse
  • Christian: Parents should teach even toddlers about private parts, have open communication

Editor's note: Cindy W. Christian, M.D. is the chairwoman of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at The University of Pennsylvania

(CNN) -- Little of the reported testimony from the Jerry Sandusky trial surprises me. I have heard these stories thousands of times over the past 25 years.

As a child abuse pediatrician, I know how predators lure susceptible children with special gifts or outings, how they coerce and manipulate their victims to comply with their advances, how they ensure secrecy with bribery or threats. I've met thousands of parents whose children were victims of sexual abuse over these years, many of whom were unaware of the crimes being committed against their children, and most of whom were devastated by the knowledge of the abuse.

I've learned lessons along the way, and want to share some weapons that parents can use in the fight against sexual abuse.

Cindy Christian
Cindy Christian

The first is knowledge. Not the knowledge that child sexual abuse exists -- most parents understand that -- but that child maltreatment is a public health problem that affects millions of children annually, and can have lifelong health consequences for victims.

Opinion: Today, sex abuse victims are less alone

The predators parents have to fear are not nameless stalkers on the Internet, but the friends and relatives who live at home or in the neighborhood. The vast majority of offenders are adults known to a child -- a parent, relative, neighbor, teacher, coach, priest, physician -- someone in a position of power and trust who abuses both. The abuse may or may not involve contact with the child's genitals, and may escalate over months or years.

Sandusky witnesses testify about showers
What will jury do with Jerry Sandusky?
New Sandusky tapes may be trial shocker
Sandusky's lawyer: Trial like soap opera

Parents also need to know that susceptible children tend to be those who are compliant and obedient. They may come from unhappy or broken homes and may be eager for attention and affection. Sexually abused children may not display outward behaviors that are worrisome to families, and if they do, their behaviors are nonspecific. They may appear withdrawn or depressed, or angry or irritable. Their school performance may suddenly and unexpectedly deteriorate, or they may become early adopters of drugs, alcohol or sex.

Jerry Sandusky trial: All you need to know about allegations, how case unraveled

Parents need to know that most child sexual abuse is discovered because a child finally discloses his or her abuse to someone, which underscores the importance of communication, and brings me to talking about sex with young children.

Educating children about privacy, safety and sex starts in early childhood, and is a process, not a talk. So while you are busy teaching your toddlers their body parts, don't forget to name the genitals. Providing a name for them teaches children that their genitals, while private, are not so private that you can't talk about them.

Parents of young children should also teach them about the privacy of body parts, and that no one has the right to touch their bodies if they don't want that to happen. Children should also learn to respect the privacy rights of others. Parents should teach children early and often that there are no secrets between parents and children.

Children need to feel safe sharing all information, good or bad, sad or funny, easy or difficult. As children age, create an environment that allows for open discussion and welcomes questions. Use news items, like the Sandusky trial, to start discussions of safety and to reiterate the message that children should always tell a trusted adult if someone is taking advantage of them sexually.

'The Sandusky 8' describe seduction, molestation and betrayal

If a child discloses abuse, listen carefully, support his or her decision to share. Let children know that the abuse was not their fault, and seek help. That help can come from a call to law enforcement, the local child welfare agency or a child's physician. Know that the discovery of sexual abuse will be a family crisis, and that all affected family members will benefit from counseling and support. Remember that as parents, our best weapons against pedophiles and sexual predators are knowledge and communication. So don't think twice about that sex talk with your toddler.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cindy W. Christian.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT