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Don’t Take Candy from a Stranger: The Myths of Child Abuse

As a society, we continuously and unconsciously build a set of social norms. Social norms are these shared standards of what is acceptable behavior within our society. Over time, as our society builds these social norms, there are bound to be some misconceptions brought forth. As we conform to these social norms created by society, we also intake these pieces of information that then become widely accepted as being true when in fact, they are not. This is called a myth. Myths date back thousands of years, and because of their widely held acceptance, it is difficult to tell our hardwired brain that they are false.

Just like anything, the topic of child abuse consists of many myths, and by believing that these myths are true, we struggle to effectively help these victims. Below I will dive into four common myths of child abuse and detail why they are in fact false.


Myth 1: Creepy strangers commit abuse against children.

Over many years of solidification, it has become a widely accepted belief that pedophiles, creepy old men, and strangers are the people who abuse children. This belief has led parents, teachers, and caregivers to teach children about “stranger danger”. Children are taught to not talk to strangers, accept candy from strangers, or get into a stranger’s car (or more specifically, their big white van with blackout windows). While these are still good rules to follow as crimes involving strangers can happen, they only make up 5-10% of actual child abuse cases. Instead, we should be focusing on teaching children what touches are and are not okay for them to get from family members and other adults close to them.

Research shows that over 90% of child victims know their abuser, whether that be a parent, friend, caregiver, relative, or neighbor. This research breaks that 90% down into different categories of abusers known by the child. It states that 38% of child maltreatment cases are perpetrated by the child’s mother, while 23.9% of these cases are perpetrated by the child’s father. It further states that roughly 20% of child maltreatment cases are perpetrated by both parents acting together. On the other hand, of the cases not involving parents, 14.5% are perpetrated by relatives of the child, unmarried partners, foster siblings, babysitters, and teachers. These statistics prove that society’s widely accepted belief that strangers are the main perpetrators of child abuse, is not valid.


Myth 2: Most children lie about abuse.

Following the myth detailed above, many parents believe that their child is lying when abuse at the hands of a close family member is disclosed because they don’t believe their partner, close friend, or relative could do something like that. Furthermore, adults tend to believe the child is lying because they think the child wants attention, wants to get back at a parent, or because the child recants their original disclosure. Just because a child recants their original disclosure, does not mean they were lying. A child may recant for many reasons including feeling guilt or shame of what their disclosure is doing to their family, or because they are repeatedly not believed and told they are lying.

Unfortunately, only 15% of child abuse cases produce some type of evidence; therefore, in the other 85% of cases, it turns into a he-said-she-said situation of the child versus the abuser. In this case, when the alleged abuser is a parent, relative, or close friend who is also an upstanding citizen known by many, they tend to be believed over the child. Studies have shown that the current estimated rate of false allegations and disclosures is only 1.8 to 4.7% of all cases involving child abuse. Contrary to popular belief, children are not likely to lie. Research shows what are and are not developmentally appropriate sexual behaviors for children; therefore, if a child is showing developmentally inappropriate behaviors and then discloses to abuse, they are likely telling the truth. In those situations, they typically have no reason to lie, and only know those developmentally inappropriate words and actions from experience.


Myth 3: Only men sexually abuse children.

Society fails to see women as offenders, especially of child abuse because they are seen more as child protectors within our society. Statistics show that 20.9% of case reports regarding child abuse have a female listed as perpetrator #1; furthermore, 42% of these case reports show a female being listed as perpetrator #2 or as a co-perpetrator. However, even with these large percentages, only 1% of child sexual offenders in our prison systems are female. Since society doesn’t typically recognize women as offenders, the population of females abusing children is highly underrepresented.

Studies have shown that women who have a significant history of personal trauma tend to be predisposed to becoming offenders of child abuse, in comparison to their male counterparts. In addition, men stand out as child abusers because, statistically, they tend to start offending at a younger age and offend for a longer period of time. This allows us, as a society, to focus more on men than women because women have a shorter offending period.


Myth 4: Disabled children are less likely to be abused.

There are many assumptions that autistic children are asexual and that children who are disabled don’t fantasize about having sex and therefore do not act on sexual desires, making them less susceptible to abuse. This assumption is not backed by any research or statistics and is inherently false. Sexual abuse of disabled individuals is frequently repeated and chronic. Disabled children have many more needs which, in turn, requires more care than a non-disabled child; therefore, these children are surrounded by more adults which raises the likelihood of abuse occurring.

Research shows that 92% of abusers of disabled children are men and are mainly family members and acquaintances. It also shows that 70% of these victims are female versus only 30% of these victims being male. Many disabled children have disabilities that make it difficult for them to tell an adult or get help. These disabilities may include being non-verbal, having difficulty understanding deception and manipulation, or being more susceptible to grooming due to close and constant contact with caretakers. Statistics show that disabled children are 1.7 times more likely to be physically abused, and 1.8 times more likely to be sexually abused than non-disabled children; however, because of lower disclosure rates among the disabled population, these rates may be underestimated.

The risk of being abused is high for male children with disabilities, but that risk decreases as they age. On the other hand, the risk of being abused is extremely high for female children with disabilities, and that risk continues to increase as they age. Research also shows that once a disabled child becomes an adolescent, abuse at the hands of a service provider increases by 30%. Since child abuse among disabled children is so underrepresented, that population of individuals also experiences extreme difficulty in finding treatment for abuse that fits their needs and developmental level. This population tends to be left out of prevention education and other treatments; however, they are arguably the group that needs it the most because of the immense risk of abuse.


How can we change the norm?

Changing the social norm and mindset that individuals hold regarding these myths will be a long and difficult process; however, the fastest way to change is through prevention education. Teaching children that there are both safe and unsafe touches and that they can always talk to a safe adult if they have experienced an unsafe touch, is extremely important. It is also necessary to teach adults and caregivers the signs of child abuse to look out for and who to notify if they see it. Offenders who commit child abuse use tactics of deception and manipulation to ensure a child won’t tell. These offenses slip through the cracks because there isn’t enough education to block those cracks. Educating both adults and children is the first step to breaking down these common myths and to promote change in our society.


By: Amber Bloss


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