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Empowering Children to Set Boundaries

The issue of childhood sexual abuse has galvanized the public in recent years, perhaps in no small part due to the convictions of high-profile figures like TLC reality television star Josh Duggar for such offenses. Additionally, Britain’s Prince Andrew was relieved of his royal duties as a result of his suspected participation in Jeffrey Epstein’s trafficking ring of underage girls. As disturbing as the official statistics are in terms of this crime, it is also important to remember that for a variety of reasons, it is also one that is severely *underreported*. The official numbers are still quite daunting, as they indicate that one in nine girls and one in 53 boys are victimized sexually prior to their eighteenth birthday, and that survivors of childhood sexual abuse are four times more likely to abuse drugs and three times more likely to experience PTSD than adults who were not victimized as children (RAINN, 2022). 

Consequently, experts have turned their attention to the prevention of this serious crime, and one measure that might prove helpful is encouraging children to feel more empowered to set boundaries in their interactions with adults and explaining to them that their bodies are theirs alone, and that no one has any right to touch them in an inappropriate way. Research indicates that, contrary to public fears and perceptions towards the dangers of anonymous abductors and exploiters of children, the clear majority of cases of childhood sexual abuse are perpetrated by someone with whom the child is already acquainted (Mcalinden, 2006). This abuser can be a family member, another trusted adult in the child’s life, like a coach or teacher, or perhaps a family friend, but one commonality that acquaintance-based abuse seems to share across cases is that most involve a process of grooming.

Essentially during the grooming process, the offender engages in a highly manipulative process in which he/she endeavors to gain the victim’s trust and pave the way for the abuse to occur (Mcalinden, 2006). Heartbreakingly, these offenders often use against children those very same traits that make them so endearing, in a manner that facilitates the abuse. For example, offenders can play on the desire of a child to please an adult and to be seen as obedient, as well as the natural openness to experience and kindness to the world that most children bring to bear. Victim accounts regarding notorious pedophile Jerry Sandusky indicate that in his grooming process with his victims, he often engaged in overly familiar physical behavior as he got to know the children and teens, resting his hand on their legs and hugging them too long.

Because offenders are able to exploit traits and behaviors of children in such an agonizing manner during the grooming process, we propose that it is possible that some of these crimes could be prevented if the paradigm in society regarding adult-child interactions changes somewhat. We certainly do not propose outlawing hugs or contact between children and adults—that would be ridiculous! What we *do* suggest is encouraging children to feel free to set limits and to know that they are not being disrespectful in doing that. In other words, no means no, and children should be taught that boundaries are a healthy thing, not a sign of unfriendliness or disrespect towards authority figures. 


Mcalinden, A.-M. (2006). ‘setting ’em up’: Personal, familial and institutional grooming in the sexual abuse of children. Social & Legal Studies, 15(3), 339–362. 

RAINN. (2022). Children and teens: Statistics. Children and Teens: Statistics. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from