After my initial surprise at the e-mail, I gave some serious thought to how I should broach the issue with my son, or whether to mention anything at all. At seven years old, I’ve never talked to him about the possibility of sexual abuse. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know what it is. I wasn’t sure if a conversation would be helpful, or would make him feel anxious or uncomfortable.
While I was mulling it over, I found a systematic review about addressing the issue of sexual abuse among school children. The review, published by the Campbell Collaboration, assess whether school-based programs to educate children about sexual abuse help them develop behaviors and knowledge that will protect them. The review includes 24 separate studies with a total of more than 5,800 participants.
The analysis made some interesting conclusions based on the data available:
- School programs to educate youth about sexual abuse do help them to learn behaviors to help avoid dangerous situations.
- There is evidence that children retain this knowledge over time.
- On the whole, these type of programs do not increase anxiety or fear among children.
- Participating in an education program is likely to increase the odds that children will disclose if they already have suffered sexual abuse.
The authors note that more data is needed to understand the long-term effects of these type of programs. But on the whole, the evidence shows that educating children about sexual abuse yields positive results.
John Eckenrode is a professor of human development at Cornell University, associate director of Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, and director of the National data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect. He says the good news is that the incidence of child abuse and neglect has dropped by about one-third over the past 15 years.
“We don’t know the precise reasons for this – likely a combination of increased public awareness, better responses by police and the legal system, better treatment programs, and more widespread use of evidence-based prevention programs like those outlined in the Campbell review,” he said. “There is not, however, good data to suggest that universal school-based programs reduce the actual incidence of sexual abuse —most likely due to the fact that most sexual abuse is committed by trusted family members and others well known to the child, not strangers. So while a valuable part of a multi-faceted approach to child sexual abuse prevention, programs such as these are not a replacement for prevention efforts targeting adults caring for young children. “