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Santa or no Santa, here’s what parents better watch out for this holiday season

Half of U.S. children believe in Santa Claus, according to an Ipsos poll conducted this time last year. Which means the other half doesn’t. It’s no surprise that when the holidays roll around, the #webelieve and #nosanta debate flames up like a reliable yule-tide log. Parents in both camps have strong opinions. On the pro-Santa side, parents want to create an experience of childhood wonder. On the no-Santa side, parents don’t want to perpetuate myths that might leave a child disillusioned or compete with religious observances.

We have an opinion, too: there are more important parenting commitments to make this time of year.

Parents and caregivers—your household holiday traditions are personal choices. How families gather and celebrate isn’t our concern, with one exception: child safety. While it might feel too sober for such a festive time of year, child sexual abuse prevention should be at the top of any list a parent is making and checking twice.

Last year in Pennsylvania, Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) provided critical intervention and support services to 15,735 children who came to one of our centers because of suspected abuse. CACs work together with law enforcement partners, children and youth services caseworkers, prosecutors, medical providers, and trauma therapists to ensure that child victims get what they need to be safe and begin a healing journey. 

CACs know that children are sometimes MORE vulnerable to being sexually abused during this “hap-happiest” season of all. Here are some facts:

We don’t want to Grinch your holiday preparations with bad news. But it’s important for parents and caregivers to educate themselves about the risk of child sexual abuse and what you can do to prevent and respond if needed.

This time of year, families get together for big meals, special traditions, and gift-giving. There is a lot of together-ness. That looks and sounds warm and merry in commercials and carols…but it’s not always great. Erin Merryn is a survivor of child sexual abuse and the founder of Erin’s Law, which mandates sexual abuse prevention education for schoolchildren in states where it is adopted. Each year during the holidays, Erin shares a photo of herself at the age of 12, opening Christmas gifts and surrounded by family: “What you cannot tell from this photo is [that] I had been locked in a bedroom just before this photo was taken. I was being sexually abused by my older cousin.” Later that night, the same cousin abused Erin again. “That was the one Christmas in my childhood I never forgot what I wore due to the abuse I experienced that night.”

“That was the one Christmas in my childhood I never forgot what I wore due to the abuse I experienced that night.”

We know that child sexual abuse can lead to significant negative outcomes in physical and mental health, education and professional achievements, and personal relationships. Being alert to risks and prepared to respond to problematic situations could mean the difference between a child’s cherished family memory or lifelong trauma.

Here’s another fact: child sexual abuse is 100% preventable. Empowering family members to protect a child’s body, respect a child’s boundaries, and behave appropriately are all foundational pieces in building a truly happy holiday—one that is safe.

The thing we really want kids to believe in? Adults. We want children to believe that we are trustworthy, have their best interests at heart, and will always listen when they have something to tell us. Unfortunately, kids also need to learn that some adults aren’t safe. But no child should have to learn that from personal experience.

  • Teach them basic rules about body safety (no one should ever see, touch, or take pictures of a child’s private parts).
  • Help them set boundaries (don’t want to hug? that’s okay).
  • Give them some tools to recognize strange behavior (someone wanting to spend time alone? ask some questions).

Most importantly, have conversations with your children. Ask your kids and teens how they’re feeling—before and after family gatherings and other holiday events. Encourage them to say something if they are ever sad, scared, or uncomfortable around anyone. And, if a child does disclose abuse to you, please make a report so that trained professionals may investigate.

If you suspect child abuse in Pennsylvania,

call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313 to make a report.

Parents and caregivers—don’t forget that in all the holiday hype, you have special opportunities to teach your kids something that does really matter, Santa or no-Santa. Give your child a voice to speak up. THAT may be the best gift. Go ahead and wrap those toys, too—we just ask that you make some space for what really matters when it comes to parenting.

And, if you are a Santa household, there’s an extra safety rule for you: if your child doesn’t want to sit on Santa’s lap, don’t make them!

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