|| How to Talk with Your Children about Sexual Abuse
by David Pittman, Together We Heal
I was once given some advice from a person much older and wiser than myself: “ If a child is old enough to ask the question, they are old enough to get the truth.” There is, however, a way to present truth in a way that neither scares the child nor impedes their ability to openly communicate with the adult about “delicate” subject matter.
The following is a combined list of different suggestions on ways to talk to your children about sexual abuse.
The sources for this information are Together We Heal, The Joyful Child Foundation, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, FamilyWatchDog.com, The Center for Behavioral Intervention in Beaverton, Oregon, and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's: Convicted Sex Offender Web Site, BACHNET, Child Lures, Inc., as well as my own personal recommendations based on personal experience.
1) Start Young
Talk openly and often with your children about sexual development, behavior and abuse. Keep in mind that if you discuss sexual development with your children appropriately from a very young age, they will not be embarrassed by the subject matter and will be less vulnerable to the grooming tactics of many child molesters.
Children who do not have their curiosity satisfied do not stop asking, they simply start looking elsewhere for their answers. After all, who do you want educating your children about sex and sexuality…you or their friends and Madison Avenue?! Starting young is not damaging. Parents believe that somehow it is inappropriate for them to be discussing such things with young children. If a child has a curiosity about something, it does not damage them to know the truth. Truth is never wrong! Truth is never damaging! While they are young is a healthy time for children to know the answers. It is the best time. One of the biggest mistakes parents make is waiting until the teenage years to address issues of sexuality.
Rather than trying to wait until a time when you are beginning to lose control of your children, confront the issues now. Make sure you spend the first 12 years of your child's life laying out a stable framework for your children to build their ideals and morals from. Don't wait until they are 13 and riddled with urges to start addressing the issue of healthy sexual relationships.
The key to this is what my friend and colleague, Rachel Grant, calls “normalizing” the conversation. What we mean by that is, for example, a “normal” talk with your child would be, “how was practice today, or do you need any help with your homework?” So just as normally as you bring up those topics, so also ask them, “has anyone made you feel uncomfortable at school or church today?” “Has anyone approached you or touched you in a way that made you feel upset?” The more normal you make the conversation, the more likely they are to open up to you and talk about it.
Instill concepts when they are young. Confronting the tough issues and morals you would like your children to be instilled with begins at birth, and that includes sexuality.
2) Use Proper Terminology
Use proper names or semi-proper names for body parts (penis and vagina), and phrases like: private parts are “private and special”. Research shows that children who know the proper words for their body parts are less likely to be sexually abused than children who are not. Teaching a child that body parts are so embarrassing and shameful to talk about that they need silly nicknames makes it much more likely that a child will not tell you if someone touches them inappropriately. When a child knows the proper names, it puts a predator on notice that there is an atmosphere of openness and dialogue in a home and that if they harm your child, it is more likely to be discovered and disclosed.
Take the time to rehearse with your spouse/partner or any adult that will give you a truthful critique and be patient. This is not the time to rush through or skim over the parts that make you feel uncomfortable. Just imagine that if you have a difficult time talking with the adult, what will it be like when you talk with your child? Gather resources from organizations such as Together We Heal, SNAP, Stop It Now, RAINN, Stop Abuse Campaign, Survivors Chat, @Beyond_Survivor, @Dylansmoosie, etc., and make notes or an outline. Do whatever makes it easiest for you to remember the topics and keep yourself on point. Throughout the talk, your child will be asking questions that will take you in various directions so it is essential that once you answer the question you get back on track. Also consider that you may not be able to address all questions at once. Be honest with your child if they ask you a question that you do not have the answer. Tell them the truth. Let them know that you need to find the answer and let them know later.
4) No Secrets and No Private time with Adults/Children
Teach your child not to keep secrets and that no one should ask your child to keep a secret from you. Teach your child that there are happy surprises which we are going to tell people about soon (like birthday presents or the ending to a story your brother is reading), but that we don't have secrets that we're not allowed to tell and we don't keep secrets that make us feel sad or worried.
Avoid one child-one adult situations. 90% of all child sexual abuse occurs in situations where there is only one adult and one child present. When a child is going to have one on one time with an adult, attempt to schedule that time in observable places (like parks and restaurants). Ask your child about how things went when they were alone with an adult, child or relative. Listen for specific details and watch your child's mood.
5) Create a “Safety Team” or “Safety Circle”
Help your child create a list of their trusted adults. Give your child a copy of their list. Make sure their support “network” peoples' phone numbers are by the telephone with and in a place that your child has easy access to. Once you and your child have made a list, let all the people on your child's list know that they are part of this emergency network. Let them know your child has your permission to contact them and ask them if they are comfortable with this responsibility.
Let your child know that you will not be upset if they go to anyone on this list when they are scared or confused. It is very common for children to feel that they cannot speak to their parents in spite of a parent's attempt to ease this fear. The majority of children who report sexual abuse do not report it to their parents. Sexual predators often tell their victims that what is happening is the victims' fault; that they will get in trouble, that they will be taken away or that their parents will stop loving them and will hate them. Molesters who are related to the child also scare them into silence by telling them that no one else will take care of them if they go to jail. It is very important to talk with your children and reassure them of your unconditional love and remind them of all the people who care about them. When you take away an offender's ability to keep his victim silent, you take away his power.
6) Explain How Your Child is Helping
Avoid scary details. Use language that is honest and age appropriate. Explain that no one should touch a child on the parts of their body that are covered by their bathing suit. Also let your child know that there are exceptions to this situation such as mommy or daddy helping a young child bathe, diaper changes or a doctor examining a child with their parent present.
When discussing sexual abuse with younger children, refer to sexual predators as adults with “touching problems.” These people can make “secret touching” look accidental (such as tickling or wrestling) and they should still tell you even if they think (or were told) it was an accident. This is a way for a young child to understand that an adult has an inappropriate behavior without giving your child nightmares or age-inappropriate details about what the “touching” might entail.
Tell your children that people who have touching problems need special help so they don't continue to have problems or get into trouble. Don't describe it as a sickness and don't say that “bad” people do this, as most of the time the “bad” person is someone who seems good or is known to the child. Do not use words like pedophile, predator or pervert; but rather, refer to “touching problems” instead as this gives the child the ability to judge and tell you about the behavior without the understandable confusion that arises when the perpetrator is someone they love or care about.
Finally – And this step is probably the most important. Create a form letter that explains how you have discussed with your child/children about the issue of childhood sexual abuse and list the people in their circle of trust. Give a copy to each adult in your child's life and on the list. By notifying all of the adults in your child's life (family, friends, teachers, coaches, and parents of your child's friends), you have in effect warned most potential predators in your child's life that they will be caught should they target your child for abuse or inappropriate behavior. Sex offenders generally target children where the risk of getting caught is sufficiently low. By doing this, you are telling any would-be offender that your child is prepared and as parents you are involved.
My hope is that you will take these tips and begin the dialogue with your child/children. Remember to do this also…talk WITH your child, not AT your child. Together we can work to give your children the BEST possibility of NOT being a statistic. (1 in 6 boys and 1 in 3 girls are molested and / or sexually abused / raped by the age of 18).