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 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT