Pediatricians know that when they discuss seat belt, bicycle and water safety during annual wellness visits they are helping to reduce a child's risk of harm. Those same visits should include messages about personal space and privacy, says Dr. Martin A. Finkel, an internationally known expert in the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, and he is urging pediatricians to begin a dialogue that will help children avoid the physical and mental health consequences of sexual abuse.
"Our failure to incorporate these messages is not because we are unaware of the issue of child sexual abuse, but perhaps because we find the topic unpalatable or don't have the language to address it," said Finkel, medical director and co-founder of the Child Abuse Research and Education Services (CARES) Institute at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Osteopathic Medicine. "It's well overdue that pediatricians add this issue to their prevention repertoire."
In a letter distributed to members of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP/NJ), Dr. Finkel highlights the urgent need for this approach. He notes that one in four girls and one in seven boys become victims of child sexual abuse, that 40 percent of the victims are younger than six, and that a perpetrator is most likely to be a family member or someone with easy access to the child.
In his letter to fellow pediatricians, Dr. Finkel offers a list of nine suggestions that includes specific language they can use to deliver and reinforce these messages with children. Among his suggestions:
•Begin talking to parents about delivering personal space and privacy information by the time a child is three years of age.
•Encourage parents to teach their children the correct names for their private parts so the children have the language to communicate abuse.
•Introduce the concept of "OK and Not OK" touching as opposed to "good touch - bad touch" which can be confusing to children.
•Provide parents with guidance about language they should use and appropriate times for reinforcing messages of personal space and privacy.
•Emphasize to children that it is never OK to have a secret.