by Irene Daria

If you’re like most parents, you think a pedophile could never live in your neighborhood and target your beautiful, innocent child.

 FACT: Sexual abuse of children happens everywhere, in all socio-economic brackets and in all parts of town.

If you’re like most parents, you think child sexual abuse is rare.

 FACT: Child sexual abuse is shockingly common: 1 out of every 5 girls and 1 out of every 10 boys will be sexually abused before they reach the age of 18.

If you’re like most parents, you think you don’t have to do anything about protecting your child from pedophiles until they’re older.

FACT: “Children of all ages are at risk,” says David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. For children under age 12, the risk of sexual assault peaks at age 4, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. For that reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you begin taking steps to protect your children when they are preschoolers.

Many parents think the primary way to protect children from pedophilia is to teach them to stay away from strangers. However, less than 10 percent of sexual abuse of children under age 12 is done by strangers, says Finkelhor. Most sexual abusers are known, trusted and liked by the children they victimize. “About 50 percent of child abuse is done by people who take care of a child, such as family members or babysitters, while the other 40 percent is done by acquaintances such as priests, coaches, counselors or family friends,” says Kenneth Lanning, a retired FBI agent who is now a private consultant specializing in crimes against children.

Polly Frank’s two daughters were sexually assaulted by a neighbor when they were 8 and 9. “His daughter and my 9-year-old were best friends,” says Franks, who is now president of the Virginia chapter of Mothers Against Sexual Abuse (MASA), in Richmond. “His wife and I were very close, and we frequently had dinner at each other’s houses. We thought he was just another nice, suburban dad.”

In fact,pedophiles rarely seem like bad guys. “They’re often the most popular teacher or counselor,” says Richard Rice, M.D., a psychiatrist in private practice in Northampton, Mass who has a close child relative who was forced to perform oral sex on an 11-year-old male counselor-in-training at a local daycamp when the child was 3-years-old. “They’re cool, attractive, and charming, and have a special way with kids. How else are they going the kids to do what they want and gain the trust of the parents, employers or volunteer organizations who give them access to children?”

How pedophiles lure children

Initially, a sexual abuser will engage in a predictable pattern of trust-building behavior called “grooming.” He’ll make the targeted child feel special by giving her lots of time and attention, gifts, and special treats or privileges. For example, if the predator is babysitting he’ll let the child stay up longer than the other kids or he’ll give candy only to the child he’s targeted. He’ll also usually take the child into his confidence, telling her secrets about his life, or about something he’s done wrong and make the child promise not to tell. “Researchers have interviewed confessed sex offenders about what they look for in their victims; most importantly, they look for someone who is going to keep a secret,” says Dr. Kellogg.

Once the predator has befriended a child and is sure the child will keep a secret, he will then begin sexually touching the child, becoming more sexually aggressive each time. Unfortunately, the child often won’t tell their parents because “the child will be very confused about what is going on,” says Nancy Kellogg, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. “Here’s a person she knows and trusts behaving in a way that’s wrong but that the molestor says is all right.” A pedophile will often say things like, “This is okay, I’m just teaching you what boys are going to do to you when you get older.” or “This is okay. Doesn’t it feel nice?”

Of course, most kids do tell the molestor to stop or they try to get away. That’s when predators begin using threats to maintain the silence. “Perpetrators are very clever,” says Terri James-Banks, LCSW, director of Social Work at Kempe Children’s Center in Denver, which specializes in treating children who have been sexually abused. “They figure out what a kid is most scared of. Then, depending on the individual child’s vulnerability, the perpetrator will say things like, `If you tell, you’re going to get in trouble too. You weren’t supposed to have any candy and you did and I’m going to tell on you.’ or `If you tell, I’m going to hurt your mom.’”

What to tell your children

Luckily, there are simple things that you can say to your child that till help protect him without making him scared or anxious. They are:

* We don’t keep secrets in our house. Explain that an adult or older child should never ask her to keep a secret—and that she should tell you if anyone ever does. This one step will really empower your child because “if a predator realizes a child won’t keep a secret, sexual abuse won’t happen,” says Dr. Kellogg.

Since the distinction between a surprise and secret is often confusing for preschoolers, James-Banks suggests explaining, “Secrets are things that are not supposed to be told to anybody else, ever. Surprises are okay because eventually everybody knows about a surprise like a birthday party or a present.”

* No one should kiss or hug you if you don’t want them to. The next time you go to hug or kiss your toddler and she rebuffs you—either because she’s busy playing or she’s in a bad mood—respect your child’s feelings and take advantage of that moment by saying, “Other people should always listen if you tell them you don’t want them to touch or kiss you.” Parents can unknowingly set their kids up for abuse by insisting that they kiss or hug other people even when the children don’t want to, says Claire Reeves, president and founder of MASA, and author of Childhood: It Should Not Hurt.

* The parts of your body that a bathing suit covers are private. The next time your preschooler shows natural curiosity about the physical differences between boys and girls, take advantage of that teachable moment and tell him or her, Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. Those parts of our bodies are private. We don’t touch other people’s private parts and other people shouldn’t look at, or touch, our private parts. The only exceptions are when Mommy or Daddy (or a babysitter) is helping you bathe; when you need help going to the bathroom; or when a doctor is checking to make sure that part of your body is okay.

If your child is older than 5, you can tell him more directly that someone might try to touch his private parts. “But don’t use the terms `sexual abuse,’” says Barbara Bonner, Ph.D. director of the Center of Child Abuse and Neglect at the Oklahoma University Child Study Center at the University of Oklahoma Medical School. “It’s not psychologically healthy for kids to have that kind of language in their heads and for them to see themselves as potential victims.” Instead present the fact that someone might try to touch their private parts in the context of bullying. “A perfect opportunity would be if your child tells you about a mean kid who called him names or even hit him,” says James-Banks. You might then say, “Some people have problems. Bullies are people who like to hurt people by calling them names or by hitting them. Other people have a different problem. Their problem is that they like to look at, or touch other people’s private parts. You should always tell me whenever anyone does anything that hurts you.”

Remember, “this isn’t a one-time conversation,” says James-Banks. It’s important to keep in touch with your child by asking things like, How’d it go with that mean kid today? “You need to keep modeling that you talk about good things as well as scary or bad things in your family,” says James-Banks.

* It’s okay to say no to someone older than you, even if that person is in a position of authority. Convicted sex offenders have told researchers that “they look for kids who are very well behaved and do what people tell them to do, says Dr. Kellogg. Most kids have been taught to respect adults who are in a position of authority, such as teachers, coaches, religious leaders, or camp counselors. “You have to come right out and tell kids that it’s okay to say no to someone who’s older than them or in a position of authority if they are being told to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable,” says Dr. Rice.

* Be careful when you’re online. Each year, one out of five 10- to 17-year-olds receives a sexual solicitation on the Internet, says Finkelhor. Experts advise parents to put the computer in a common room so that they can supervise their kids’ internet use. However, “the best way to protect your kids is to give them an internalized understanding of what is dangerous,” says Finkelhor. That means telling them that people may lie about who they are, or what they are like, in order to meet kids over the internet. Tell your kids there are some bad people out there and they should never reveal their real names or addresses or phone numbers to anyone they “meet” online.

Other smart strategies

* Know how to pick a safe environment for your kids. Ask if the daycare center or camp or organization does criminal background checks on its volunteers and employees. Ask the camp director or the school principal or the coach, What is your policy on protecting children from sexual abuse? “You want to pick a place that has thought about the issue and that has given guidelines about appropriate or inappropriate touching to the people who work there,” says Dr. Rice. For example, hugging a hurt and crying child is obviously fine. But camp and school directors should be on the lookout for someone who is “always pulling the kids into his lap, or always hugging them,” says an assistant state district attorney who once handled the revocation of licenses of teachers convicted of sexual abuse. In addition, children should never be alone with an adult, especially during nap, bathroom, or movie time. If a program tells you kids are never left alone with an adult, stop in from time to time to make sure this is true.

* Read between the lines when your kids talk to you. Most children will never directly tell their parents they have been sexually abused. However, most will hint at it. “Kids will say things like, `I don’t want to take the bus to camp anymore’ or `I don’t want to go to afterschool anymore’ or `I don’t want to go back to that babysitter,’” says Bonner.

They may also begin using sexual terms that are inappropriate for their age. For example, when Dr. Rice’s 3-year-old relative attended an open house at his daycamp, the boy showered with his father after swimming and used explicit language. The father was shocked “but passed it off as `camp talk’ the boy had somehow picked up,” says Dr. Rice. Now, the father sees that as a great mistake and feels very guilty for not picking up on the abuse sooner but, as Dr. Bonner explains, “As parents, it doesn’t cross our mind that sexual abuse might be involved. It just doesn’t. Parents need to raise their level of suspicion and recognize the warning signs. They also need to come right out and ask, Is someone doing something to you there that makes you uncomfortable?”

* Believe your child if he tells you he has been abused. “Many parents are skeptical because they can’t believe the adult or older child could have done such a thing,” says Finkelhor. However, “researchers have found that the mother’s response to the child and the support and belief she gives to the child are major factors in the child’s positive recovery from sexual abuse,” says Bonner.

Ideally, you should remain calm and get your child to tell you as much as possible about the abuse. If the abuse was short-term and relatively minor, kids tend to recover pretty quickly and go on.” Give your child lots of love and support and make sure to tell her the abuse was not her fault. “Tell her it was the other person who did something wrong,” says Bonner. Then, make sure to report that person to your local police department. If you require support or assistance in handling a case of sexual abuse, you can also contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678 or at Says Ernie Allen, president of NCMEC, “As long as we’re here, nobody has to deal with child sexual exploitation alone.”