Misunderstanding the problem of child abuse

// 30 May 2008

Rainbow ChildOn BBC Breakfast news some parents are complaining about a booklet produced by the NSPCC designed to inform children about how to report abuse. The booklet, which adopts a youth magazine/comic book format, covers all forms of abuse but it’s the sexual abuse category that seems to have gotten people riled.

Queue a parent who’s sole point was basically, this shouldn’t be given to the under 10s (the booklet is written for the 9-11 age group). But her point was that parents should be given the right to choose about whether and how this information is distributed. Which is laudable in most families. But not in others – in some families leaving it to the parents simply won’t work because it is parents who are abusers or parents who are protecting abusers. To claim, as she implicitly does, that parents can’t be part of the problem is naive and blinkered. Lets run that again – this is a booklet on child abuse, most physical abuse is committed by parents or caregivers, neglect and emotional abuse is committed by parents or caregivers, sexual abuse can be committed by parents or caregivers. Prioritising the parent in this discussion misunderstands the intention – to inform children that their rights are not reliant on their parents allowing them access to them.

The NSPCC made clear that the booklets were sent to schools with guidance as to their use and distribution. Some school failed to follow that and that is where the most of these handful of complaint have come from. The NSPCC also “road-tested” the booklet with students and teachers before publication.

Photo by hlkljgk used under Commons Creative Licence

Comments From You

Rachael // Posted 30 May 2008 at 10:42 am

I know this is not going to be a popular comment – but having worked in child protection, I have found most parents to be totally denying of child abuse. They would rather hang on to their own control than to face the truth. In fact – I think this true of most adults. We treat our children as parts of us rather than individuals in desperate need of protection.

Sarah // Posted 30 May 2008 at 10:52 am

I agree, and while I wouldn’t suggest that the parents opposing this are necessarily abusing their children, they are spectacularly missing the point. I can understand parents initially feeling a little uncomfortable about this – it could feel like an accusation against them or undermining of family life. But really it is about children being safe and being able to ask for help if they ever need to, and I am amazed that after thinking it through anyone would be opposed to that.

I haven’t seen the booklet, but I assume the information would be presented in an age-appropriate way, not upsetting or frightening for children.

Sarah // Posted 30 May 2008 at 10:56 am

I agree with Rachael – although when I worked with children, the risk was more likely neglect than sexual/physical. Most parents see whatever they choose to do as necessarily a good choice for their child.

I really don’t understand why people believe you can simply *not tell* children about Teh Sex and they will remain ignorant, despite natural curiosity/feelings, their peers and the media they see. And 9-11 is a pretty able age group…

None of these influences have to be bad. Abuse won’t be reported by children who have no vocabulary to describe their bodies, or have been told they have the right to assert autonomy over themselves (i.e. nobody is allowed to touch you in certain ways).

Its rather depressing.

Jane P // Posted 30 May 2008 at 11:35 am

I agree with Rachel. Child abuse, like domestic violence cuts across all classes. If anything it’s easier to hide it among the polite leafy suburbs. And if you go to the NSPCC website, in the latest news they’ve done a survey where 54% of children say they’d be “too embarrassed and tongue-tied to confide in their parents about a personal problem” which seems to back up the need for the booklet informing children how they can report abuse.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 30 May 2008 at 11:38 am

It appears the problem lies with schools which have not followed the NSPCC guidelines on how the booklets are to be distributed and used. I note the NSPCC conducted a pilot scheme to see how the booklet works in practice. Children need to know about child sexual/physical/emotional abuse because not knowing or understanding in an age appropriate way ensures such abuse will continue to remain hidden. Parents too need to know some of the complexities of child sexual/physical/emotional abuse because abusers are always very manipulative and extremely clever at controlling the child. This booklet of course doesn’t claim to be the ‘magic answer’ but the more society knows about this issue, hopefully it will go some way to dispelling embedded myths surrounding child abuse. But I know it is difficult given the media’s propensity to sensationalise and distort this issue.

Torygirl // Posted 30 May 2008 at 9:27 pm

My son had classes on sex education at age 9, which I felt was inappropriately young, but I thought that requesting he didn’t attend them (which all parents are entitled to do) would make too much of an issue from it. This year his science exercise book has featured crude (and embarrassed looking) diagrams of male and female genitalia, sperm and ovum – that sort of thing.

This gives them more than adequate vocabulary with which to discuss their bodies. They shouldn’t be learning the words from a booklet about reporting abuse.

The issue seems to be with the exposure of children to the idea of abuse. There is no good to be had by denying its existence but at the same time it is important to remember that it is still very, very rare. Education is not only about the pleasant side of life.

I would like to respond to Rachael’s comment “We treat our children as parts of us rather than individuals in desperate need of protection.” Firstly, I think many people are guilty of loading down their offspring with projections of themselves and have been since the beginning of time. This is not necessarily harmful. Secondly, the majority – the vast majority – of parents are more than capable of giving their own children appropriate protection. I think the thing missing from Rachael’s comment HAS to be ‘most parents WITH WHOM SHE HAS WORKED’.

Having said that, I worked with 16-19 year old (mainly) care leavers for years and the vast majority of them were placed in Children’s Homes because of neglect rather than sexual abuse. There was certainly a much higher level of self harm amongst those who had survived sexual abuse.

Anne Onne // Posted 30 May 2008 at 9:57 pm

Child sexual abuse can happen at any age, and children of different ages should have an idea of what is appropriate and isn’t and who to turn to. Children who experience sexual abuse or inappropriate contact or harassment are as likely to blame themselves and feel dirty as adult victims, and we cannot underestimate the problems of them feeling too scared and intimidated to report what is happening, or that they may not be able to articulate what is going on, and why it is unacceptable. Especially since many abusers are the children’s parents, this is important and necessary. For the children who are lucky, this may be a lesson they don’t need to learn, but this is there for those whom this migth help get help.

I think I knew the biological basics at 9, but I learned them myself since we didn’t cover them at school that early. I can’t remember never knowing them, to be honest. However, my parents did give me the usual ‘beware of strangers’ talk, and the ‘if anyone does something you don’t like’, talk. These days, if I had kids, I would tell them quite early on, because children learn a lot by rumours from classmates, and truth and support is much better than myths. Children are embarrased and amused by sex education, but it’s a necessary part of life.

Saranga // Posted 1 June 2008 at 7:02 pm

Torygirl said: ‘My son had classes on sex education at age 9, which I felt was inappropriately young’

I would just like to say that I had sex education classes yearly from the age of 9 to when I left school at 18.

The ones given at age 9, 10, 11 focused on what sex was, what the bits are called and how you make babies. the ones from age 13 (ish) onwards focused on contraception and STDs.

I found this highly appropriate, it answered questions I would have been too embaressed to ask otherwise, and left me with a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of diseases, contraception, pregancy, abortion and the bits.

Providing sex education classes from an early age can help combat some of the stupid myths about sex that occur (you can’t get pregnant if you have sex standing up/if the girl’s on her period/if you do it upside down halfway up a cliff) and I would argue gives kids the vocabulary to talk about the stuff they’ll be experiencing and have questions about.

Compare my experiences with my boyfriend who had v little sex education and didn’t know about STDs, cotnraception and how women’s bits work before I explained and I think I came out winner.

Sorry, that was a little off topic!

Katarina // Posted 2 June 2008 at 7:47 am

I was strangely upset by your comment that 9 is too young for sex education, Torygirl.

I got a horrible shock when I brought a friend’s five-year-old a flamenco dress, as requested by her mother, and the child started doing the only sort of dance she knew: the bumping and grinding she’d seen women do on music videos. And she was really good at it.

I realised children are getting a sort of perverse, insidious sex education from TV and advertising and lads’ mags at the newsagent’s. It starts before they learn to read and in some homes it lasts for hours every day.

But if anyone tries to educate them about the technical aspects of sex, from a non-sleazy angle, parents will object, believing that their child lives in a world free of sleaze and that line drawings of sperm ducts and ovaries will somehow succeed in dragging them into that world.

I realise this is off topic, but what am I to do when the original post gives impossibly vague statements about guidelines not being followed, leaving me with only the purblindness of parents to react to?

Shea // Posted 2 June 2008 at 8:52 am

@ Torygirl—-“it is still very, very rare”—- if only it were.

Child abuse is neither as widely practised or as rare as many people choose to believe.

@ Rachael, “They would rather hang on to their own control than to face the truth.” That is the truest sentiment yet.

I see it all the time in parents who don’t want their children to gain access to contraceptives and those suffering abuse–denial and a wish to utterly control their children, almost from a belief that they “own” their child and have the right to decide everything for them. There is precious little acknowledgement of the autonomous individual.

I think there is an unspoken fear from the parents quoted above, that once their children learn how to describe abuse they might start to accuse them or question their conduct. It isn’t wholly unsubstantiated. A member of my extended family was abused for years, it was only when she went to university that she even gained the self awareness to articulate what she has suffered. Even after she came forward, her accusations were dismissed as “fanciful delusions” and she was disbelieved and doubted, it took another two relatives to come forward before their stories were accepted.

It is easier to pretend the world is a simpler, kinder place than to admit the reality.

Torygirl // Posted 2 June 2008 at 1:27 pm

No, it is rare. The majority of children are NOT abused in any way. That is the important thing to remember.

As his mother, I am well placed to judge that my son at 9 was too young for sex education. You can be upset as much as you like, Katarina, that doesn’t change my view.

Any link between sex education and risk taking sexual behaviours is a red herring.

Laura // Posted 2 June 2008 at 1:53 pm


Friends of mine were having sex and 12 and 13 – this was 10 years ago, when raunch culture had yet to catch on in the way it has today. You might not want your son to know about sex, but while you can prevent him from learning about biology, safe sex, respect for others and consent, which he could get from a decent school sex education, you cannot easily prevent him from being influenced by the culture around him and his peers. The average age at which boys start looking at internet porn is 13 years old, and the messages given out about sex and gender in this media are certainly not healthy. I personally would want to make sure my child had a healthy understanding of sex, bodies and relationships as early as possible in order to counteract the unhealthy images and ideas which will be bombarded at him or her through the media and their peers.

Do you think having sex education at 9 had any negative effects on your son?

NSPCC stats on child abuse can be found here:


Anne Onne // Posted 2 June 2008 at 2:06 pm

Torygirl, does not being the majority mean that it’s OK for the children who are abused to be abused and not be able to articulate it? The majority of children will never suffer meningitis, yet we are aware of the symptoms, in case. Many women will never get cervical cancer, yet we reccomend that every woman gets smear tests. Sexual problems are like any other: we do not educate children so that some sheltered privileged kids who might not do anything sexual for a while get a laugh. We educate so that those who really need the help, those who are at risk, those likely to engage in unprotected sex, or those who are being abused, know where they can go to for help, and understand their situations.

Your child is lucky. Many children are. But that doesn’t mean we forget about those that aren’t. That’s who these classes are for. Hey, I wasn’t aquainted with any boys when I had my sex education, but it made a difference to the girls that were. We can’t deny others who need something access to it (especially when it is hard to find who they are) because some people don’t need it, so it’s superfluous to them. That’s letting down the people who do need this.

It’s an unfortunate fact that young children are having sex. they hear about it on TV, they see adults talking about it everywhere. They feel pressured to act adult, and have sex. They have bodies that are capable of being sexual, even at a young age. Education and support may really help these children, may prevent them from having sex until they feel readier, and may give them the information to make their choices responsibly, and find it easier to stand up to pressure.

You have a right to believe something is or is not appropriate for your child. You had the option to opt out, and that’s your choice. You could even use any lessons at school as a chance to talk to your kid about these issues, and give him support. Maybe you’re right. Either way, we can’t design an education system around one person’s wishes.

But some children don’t get that option, dont’ get support from home. Come to think of it, sometimes the parents most leery of sending their children to sex education classes are the least likely to talk frankly and educationally to their children about sex. Many parents DO have irrational, selfish issues about their children and sex. Look at the hubbub over the HPV vaccine. Nobody bothers about rubella, a vaccine for a disease we onyl really worry about for the foetuses of pregnant women who are infected, even though it could also be seen as ‘encouraging sex’. Some parents can’t stand the idea their children will one day be sexual, particularly when this applies to daughters. And many are too embarrased to talk to their children about sex, or simply tell them to abstain.

This only lets children down.

Children deserve to know the risks and about their bodies.

Louise Livesey // Posted 2 June 2008 at 3:30 pm

First off, thanks ToryGirl for articulating some of these issues… but I too have to take issue with some of them.

First off: No, it is rare. The majority of children are NOT abused in any way.

One in two young girls will experience some form of sexual violence before age 16 in the UK (counting contact and non-contact). These are figures from the best research work available. If you narrow this to contact sexual abuse it declines to around one in six. So the majority of children are not abused, you’re right. But the majority of children will also not be run over but we educate all children about road safety, why not body safety?

When you get into discussing severe abuse of any form (as designated by Social Services or medical checklists) then, yes, sexual abuse heads down the table. But everyday sexual abuse rarely features on these checklists (such as unwanted hugging or touching, sexualising comments and so forth).

Any link between sex education and risk taking sexual behaviours is a red herring.

I would agree but I doubt on the same grounds. Anti-sex education campaigners have long argued that teaching children about their bodies and boundaries leads to more sexual experimentation. I disagree. But I think you were referring to sex education decreasing risk taking sexual behaviours – in which case you only need to look at the Netherlands and Sweden to see that certainly comnprehensive, early sex education does seem to lead to fewer pregnancies for the under 18s.

I also think you description of anatomical representations of bodies “as crude (and embarrassed looking)” tells us something important – if you feel basic, biological information is somehow embarrassing how do you cope discussing sex, bodily boundaries or even medical issues involving the genital, urinary or digestive system? Does this give them the vocabulary? Maybe but not for all children. However there is evidence that children disclosing using these biological terms are often seen as false reporters because their language lacks genuine-ness.

If children shouldn’t be learning from a booklet written by the country’s top children’s charity who/were should they be learning it from? The TV? Parents who find even biological language “crude”? Biology textbooks which talk purely about biological processes and not children’s rights? These booklets weren’t “sex education” (nor were they exclusively on sexual abuse by the way) they were a way of informing children about help available if they were experiencing harm – perhaps unecessary for the majority, but then should we withhold that information from those who need it because some don’t? Is that ethical or desirable?

Torygirl // Posted 2 June 2008 at 8:22 pm

Ha ha ha ha ha my son and his classmates had clearly been dying of embarrassment in that science lesson and been desperate to put their books away and get out of the room. He hadn’t even used a ruler to underline headings or to label the diagram.

You had any other experience teaching mixed sex groups of giggling 11 – 12 year olds about sex? It’s hard enough to find 16-24 year olds who’ll talk about sex totally comfortably.

The main factor with risk taking behaviours, sexual and any other, tends to be economics. This is also the major determiner of outcome to unplanned teenage pregnancy. These things have little to do with sex education.

The Netherlands, to make a small point, isn’t the hub of comprehensive early sex education Davina McCall would have us believe. The type of classes she saw are still very much a minority. In fact, sex education in the Netherlands, unlike Sweden is not compulsory at all. The model she reviewed was actually far more like the Swedish.

The biggest difference in these to societies when contrasted with the UK is not that they have sex education in infant schools and nipples of TV but that they are much less economically divided. There are still variations, obviously, but nothing close to the British disparity between rich and poor.

I can reference this if you would like.

Shea // Posted 3 June 2008 at 9:45 am

@ Torygirl

“The main factor with risk taking behaviours, sexual and any other, tends to be economics.” Incorrect I’m afraid. Risk taking behaviour among young people is fairly evenly spread across all socioeconomic groups. In sexual risk taking ignorance is far more of a factor -Gerressu, M (2008) “Sexual behaviour in young people” Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases, 21(1); 37-41

“This is also the major determiner of outcome to unplanned teenage pregnancy. These things have little to do with sex education.” — If your talking about why teenagers get pregnant then this is wrong—– socio economic disadvantage is held to be a factor, but equally so are low educational levels and aspirations and disrupted family structure. Imamura et al (2007) “Factors associated with teenage pregnancy in the European Union Countries: A Systematic Review” European Journal of Public Health 17 (6): 630-636

If you mean whether the teenager keeps the child or terminates then I seriously doubt that economics play a significant factor. Much more important will be the family & partner’s response to the pregnancy. Thats been my experience at least.

and yes I do have too much time on my hands………..:-)

Shea // Posted 3 June 2008 at 9:58 am

……….and you ‘re talking about economic inequality as a bad thing, with the moniker “Tory girl”!!! Time to reconsider your true blue allegiance, no?

Louise Livesey // Posted 4 June 2008 at 4:41 pm

Do I have experience of teaching mixed sex groups of 11-19 year olds about sex? Yes, actually, and about abuse too. Do children “die of embarrassment” ? Only if the facilitator/tutor makes it embarrassing. See the experience of schemes like OuterCourse in using peer facilitators to talk sex ed to your people for more on how it can be done well (and done in the UK, not Scandanavia).

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