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Teaching children to resist abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is
a very popular child protection technique. A recent scoping
review of many popular programs, however, shows that few of them
are in line with recent research in the child protection field.
The most serious weakness that the study identified is that the
key message of the programs is that children have a responsibility
to protect themselves. What adults intend as empowerment
actually becomes just another source of responsibility and guilt.
The researchers concluded that programs need to revamp their
emphasis to avoid contributing to the already-existing shame and
guilt that survivors feel.
The review also noted several other flaws in most existing
- Programs by and large emphasize sexual abuse and either
don’t discuss or don’t emphasize other forms of abuse
that children may face.
- Most of the programs emphasize “stranger danger,”
overlooking the fact that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by
people whom children and their parents trust. The programs
also don’t adequately teach children how to recognize and
avoid typical grooming behavior. Finally, the programs
don’t deal with the fact that children may find emotional
warmth and connection with their abusers, even though they dislike
the abuse itself.
- Most programs encourage children to resist abuse without
considering whether resistance is viable. For many children,
circumstances and developmental level make resistance more
dangerous than compliance. The programs’ emphasis on
resistance again adds to the shame and guilt that the children
- Child education programs also encourage disclosure, but
don’t train the people to whom they are likely to disclose.
The researchers noted that family and community training
about how to respond to disclosures would do quite a bit to elicit
more disclosures from children. Encouraging disclosure also
downplays the sometimes negative repercussions that children
experience and, at the very least, do not adequately prepare them
for how the system actually works.
- Finally, the programs completely overlooked some sources of
abuse, such as online predators, and uniquely vulnerable
populations, such as disabled children. The researchers
recommended development of additional programs targeting these
problems and populations.
Child education programs are motivated by good intentions, but
there is little evidence that they meet their intended goal.
If we insist on having such programs, however, this scoping
review identifies some weaknesses that we need to address.
The solutions are not simple, but we need to find nuanced
ways to deal with a complicated problem.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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