How To Talk To Children About Sexual Abuse
An open pathway of communication and a supportive parent- child relationship are the number one means of protecting a child against sexual abuse. There are a few reasons for that but first and foremost it is because those who would seek to prey upon a child will deliberately select one who is in need of adult interaction and/or does not have that parental advocate.
So how do we have these conversations with our kids in order to best prepare them? They are awkward and uncomfortable but they are important and need to be ongoing.
The way to approach this topic with kids is to take a stance of calm, collected, and straightforward. It is a matter of life that could arise but most likely will not and this is how it should be addressed. It may help to have done some research on the relative risks of sexual abuse in advance. For a review of the types of child sexual predators and the risks associated with each you can read more here.
With such a tone you convey that the message you are sending is serious but also that should such a situation arise there are means of addressing it and it will be appropriately handled. This provides a great deal of reassurance that your role as the parent is to handle the situation that it is not on the child to manage it. This seems like a duh sort of statement but it is of primary importance because a predator would play to isolating the child and try to confuse the child and convince them to not turn to the parents. Hence why just having these pathways open is so effective! People seeking to victimize a child usually take a test the water approach. They start with something small that could be dismissed as a misunderstanding or accident. If the child responds assertively and communicates any such discomfort to the parents then nothing more serious ever has a chance to occur.
When initiating a conversation with the child it is important to consider their age and comprehension level. Below you will find a general guideline but remember that a lot of it has to do with maturity.
At this age it is very useful to use a book to guide the conversation. There are a lot of books that cover the subject. I have not found one to be particularly better than the rest.
The concept at this age is to teach them in a very simplistic way that there are areas of their body that are to not be touched by anyone other than their mommy, daddy, any other significant care provider, and doctor.
We need to talk about good touching and bad touching. Most people care about children and just want to keep you safe but there are a few people who don’t act right with kids. If anyone ever touches you in any of these areas you have to tell mommy and daddy so that we can take care of the problem. Even if the person just tries to touch you or asks to touch you in these private areas it is very important that you tell mommy or daddy right away. If the person tells you not to tell us because you have been bad or they would hurt you or us you still have to tell because mommy and daddy and the police will make sure they can’t ever hurt anyone. Sometimes when people do bad things they just try to trick kids into keeping it a secret so they won’t get into trouble. You also need to tell us if anyone ever asks you to touch them in areas that would be covered by their bathing suit. You will never be in trouble for telling us and you will always be safer if we know so do not question if you should tell us even if it is a teacher or a friend. No one should ever touch you or asked to be touched by you in those areas and we will take care of the situation to make sure you are safe if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable. The only people allowed to touch you in those areas are us when we are washing you and taking care of you. The doctor may need to touch you in private areas as well if they need to check if you are ok.
- Make sure you reiterate that their one job is to tell you, and that you will take over from there to make everybody safe. In conjunction with this conversation, it is important to regularly have conversations about stranger danger and how to appropriately respond to people approaching them. To read more about this conversation and having it with your child click here.
At this age children have a good idea of good touching versus bad touching. Unfortunately, they have often decided that this is something that happens to younger children. This is especially true of children nearing the end of this range which is why it is a topic that requires being revisited from time to time.
Children need to be reminded that even though they are feeling more grown and able to handle situations that if someone were to touch them inappropriately that it would never be their fault. While at younger ages tricks about hurting the child’s family work well at older ages the offender often uses guilt and humiliation to keep the secret.
When you talk to your child about this topic you need to remind them that touching in private areas is wrong and that they need to tell you if anyone ever touches them in that way or if they ask for the child to touch them. Remind your child that you will always believe and support them no matter who it is that has done this to them. Tell them that it is unequivocally not their fault ever and that they would never have anything to be embarrassed about in telling you.
At this age, you can now explain offenders strategies to them. You explain that sometimes an offender would start with touching that they could pretend was on accident or was misunderstood. The child should be encouraged to tell parents if that has occurred to anyone in any situation that left them questioning if it was an accident or if it left them feeling yucky. Tell them that it is okay to tell you even if at the time they did not feel comfortable calling the person on the touching. Remind the child that as the adult it is your job, not theirs to address the situation and that they will have done their whole job by just telling you that something made them uncomfortable.
At this age, you can also explain that offenders who do inappropriate things with kids try to trick them into feeling guilty and ashamed. It is very important at this age to spell that out for them. If a situation arises you want the child to know that they are not to blame for the act, or how they are feeling inside. If they feel foolish for having trusted the person, betrayed, sad, angry, embarrassed, or ashamed that is all normal.
By this age, they really believe they have it all dialed in. They are likely to roll their eyes at you when the topic is brought up. If you have gone over everything many times before it is likely sufficient to go over the following
A) There are still people who will prey on older children and teens including people who have positioned themselves into roles like a guidance counselor,coach, and teacher to get access.
B) It is still your role as the parent to protect them and you will always believe them and make sure they that they are safe.
The important thing at this age is to use this conversation to segue into a discussion about consent. It is in this age bracket that the threat of sexual assault really spreads into the peer group.
As this shift occurs it is extremely important to educate children about rape and sexual contact consent. Here parents who have established a track record of having these uncomfortable conversations with their children get to reap the reward of normalcy at a time when it matters greatly.
As you shift to talking about consent issues you need to be clear that it relates to touching as well as sexual acts. A lot of children do not understand when lines have been crossed and we need to explain this to them.
It is important to tell boys that join behaviors such as pulling the pants down of another boy can be pursued as sexually inappropriate behavior.
It is also very important to tell younger boys that as everyone’s body is changing that it is very important that the keep their hands to themselves and to not make comments towards their female peers that could be harassment. This may sound like a well of course but children in the pubescent phase have very much undeveloped impulse control centers. It is not uncommon for boys to reach out to touch a female peers breasts or to make extremely inappropriate comments in junior high hallways. Most of these kids are not bad boys they are just impulsive, curious, and reckless. In short they are uninformed and have poor judgment, which is pretty much par for the course with pubescent boys. It behooves parents to have very direct conversations with boys around this time about the behavioral expectations that they will be expected to comply with.
If the conversation is occurring a little later in this time window the boy will understand that he can’t just grab and make lewd comments at school. I still recommend a reminder that pulling other boys pants down as a joke could get them expelled. However, at this point, the main focus should be on consent for sexual acts. It is important to teach boys to stop when asked to stop and to never make advances on a peer who is not in a condition. Of being able to give consent such as being intoxicated or otherwise impaired. Explain the concept of affirmative consent- which means that the partner being advanced upon sexually generally the female is asked directly if they are in agreement and a yes response is received. This is especially important with any new partners and is something that is increasingly important as it grows towards the new societal standard especially on college campuses. Finally, this conversation needs to include a discussion of what rape is including that rape includes any act or part of an act the other person does not want. The other partner must be able to consent. Partners they have been with before can still say no.
Girls are often shy and embarrassed about changes in their body and the way young boys react to those changes. It is important that girls be educated about the privacy of their bodies. If parents have been telling them all along that they should talk about it if someone touches them inappropriately now is a good time to reiterate that. After that it important to directly expand that to include their male peers. Young girls need to be sent a clear message of being the authority of their bodies. If a boy grabs them in a school hallway or taunts them on the bus about their body they need to be more focused on addressing that behavior and less focused on what about them would elicit this response.
Then much like boys at some point in this age range the conversation shifts to consent and explaining what constitutes rape. Girls need to know that no matter how softly they say it no means no. If they are on a date and say no it has to stop. If they are with someone they have been intimate with before but do not want to that day then they have the power to say no. They need to know that they never have to participate in anything with anyone they do not want to participate in and that they can change their mind at any point in time. The issue of affirmative consent should be explained here as well. While it may not seem as important to discuss this with a girl it really is. For one our culture is shifting to teaching this expectation so girls need to be ready to expect and respond to such questions. Secondly, girls are able to take advantage of boys as well in compromised states so it is a good point to make that both participants need to be alert and able to verbally consent.
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