Here’s how to protect your kids from sexual abuse

Sexual violence and sexual assault among high school students in schools are phenomena that we unfortunately often hear about in the media.

Sad teen (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Sad teen (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Every year thousands of sexual assaults occur in schools. Many assaults aren’t reported.  How can children be encouraged to report  assaults and what can we teach kids to identify and stop them in real time? An expert explains.

Sexual violence and sexual assault among high school students in schools are phenomena that we unfortunately often hear about in the media.

The findings of the annual report of the Association of Assistance Centers for Victims (boys and girls) of Sexual Assault for 2020, which were published about a month ago, are disturbing. 

Data from the Ministry of Education show that over 4,500 cases of sexual assault were referred to the Sexuality and Prevention of Sexual Assault Unit in the last school year, compared to a previous year in which about 3,700 cases were referred. Only in a quarter of the reported cases was there an obligation to report, which means many more cases won’t be investigated.

One issue that bothers parents and educators is how to encourage children and teens to report incidents of violence and sexual assault. Children and adolescents sometimes refrain from reporting due to barriers and emotional-social difficulties associated with the case. The victim, which in Hebrew literally means sacrifice, feels a lot of shame and embarrassment, often with self-blame and self-flagellation. Fear of public exposure and reactions of parents and family, educators and classmates, also prevents  victims from reporting what they experienced.

Some victims avoid reporting due to the difficulty of remembering the pain, humiliation and shame that they’ll feel when talking about what happened. The victim emotionally disconnects and represses memories as part of the defense mechanism. Fear of the offender, a feeling of pity for him or a fear of inflicting "damage" on him or his relatives, also prevents kids from reporting violence, either physical or mental.

How to break the bond of silence

As educators and parents we need to know the possible reasons for the bond of silence. We must teach students to identify “warning signs” and give them a safe space to share that includes a respectful place for the reluctance of children and youth to intervene and also to report. We must establish in our child the attitude: "There is doubt - there is no doubt." 

One of the important messages is that when they feel that what they experienced was sexual violence, they should try to prevent it and immediately report to an adult they trust like a parent, teacher, counselor, etc. Parents must teach youth that even if others were present, they’re obligated to tell, like they would if it only happened to them. We need to talk to the child and clarify how different types of sexual violence happen, both in physical space and virtual.

Along with the need for reporting, talk to kids about respectful and proper discourse in the face of contemptuous discourse, and acts that are considered "crossing the border" in terms of sexual violence - what’s allowed and what’s forbidden. 

Talking with youth about sexual violence develops social awareness and the ability to identify different points of view regarding social situations, in particular incidences of sexual violence. We must encourage not only the duty to report but also an understanding of how to prevent sexual assault by explaining future consequences such as feeling all alone, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, damage to self-image, avoidance of making social connections and more.

The phenomenon of sexual violence in and out of educational frameworks isn’t new. But, it seems that especially recently, we’re hearing more and more about sexual violence of male and female pupils. The responsibility for creating a safe space and an optimal climate for the prevention of sexual violence is a major task facing educators and parents. We must teach children and adolescents how to identify situations of sexual violence, to develop in themselves a sense of empathy and social responsibility, and to equip them with the tools to intervene in these situations.

Dr. Shira Soffer-Vital is a lecturer in the Department of Education and Society at Ono Academic College. This piece was originally published by The Jerusalem Post’s sister site, Walla!