How To Talk To Your Kids About Sexual Abuse
Stories like the Nassar scandal reinforce parents’ and caregivers’ desire to protect their children from a horror that is all too common.
Child sexual abuse may be scary to think about, but it’s an important topic to address with kids of all ages.
Fortunately, there are age-appropriate ways to lay the foundation and build on concepts that will help keep children safe and empower them to speak out if their boundaries are violated.
HuffPost spoke to sex educators about how to talk to kids about sexual abuse from infancy to the teen years, and how to recognize and respond to troubling situations if they arise.
Start Early By Establishing Body Autonomy, Privacy And More
Parents can build the foundation of safety from sexual abuse as early as infancy, sex educator Melissa Carnagey said.
Using the proper terms for genitals, instead of cutesy nicknames, empowers children to communicate clearly about themselves and their bodies.
“By doing this, parents are creating a shame-free and open home culture around talking about the body,” Carnagey told HuffPost in an email.
“Then as the child moves into toddlerhood and preschool ages, parents can help them understand body boundaries and consent by listening to a child’s ‘no’ or ‘stop’ and reinforcing the importance of the child respecting other people’s limits as well.”
“Preventative conversations with young children around sexual abuse aren’t usually about sexual abuse in specificity,” sex education teacher Kim Cavill said.
She encouraged parents to talk instead about the proper names for body parts, as well as body autonomy, body privacy, environmental privacy, how to say “no” and the difference between secrets and surprises.
“Body autonomy means acknowledging each person is the boss of their own body and they get to decide what they want to do with it, as long as they don’t use it to hurt someone else or themselves,” Cavill told HuffPost in an email.
“Body privacy means teaching children that some parts of their bodies are private and other people shouldn’t look at them or touch them.
Doctors should ask permission before examining private parts and a trusted grown up should be present.“
“Environmental privacy” means teaching kids about the social norms and expectations around different behaviors, like how to change into swimsuits at the community pool, how to behave in public restrooms, how to change clothes at school, and so on.
Teaching kids how to say “no” is also powerful.
“Children don’t always assume it’s OK to say ‘no,’ especially to adults, because they’re often taught to be obedient,” Cavill said.
“We have to explicitly teach children how to set boundaries for themselves and support them when they do, even if it puts us into uncomfortable situations, like refusing to give hugs at a birthday party.”
Talk About Feelings And Choices
“When children can name their emotions, and recognize emotional responses in others, it gives them the ability to express their needs, empathize with others and to listen to the signals their body gives them, especially when something or someone feels uncomfortable,” Carnagey said.
“We have to be talking about what feels good and what doesn’t in everyday conversations,” sex educator Lydia Bowers told HuffPost.
“‘I like when you give me a hug, it makes me feel warm,’ and ‘I don’t like when he took my doll, I felt angry,’ give children the language to describe their feelings, which can be critical in recognizing if they’re feeling unsafe, scared or worried.”
It’s meaningful to help kids practice identifying feelings like fear, anxiety, confusion, sadness and discomfort, and adults should try not to dismiss or minimize those emotions when a child expresses them.
Parents can also teach children about the ways bodies can give warning signs in relation to feelings (like sweaty palms, wanting to cry or feeling the sudden need to urinate) that are important to listen to.
Explain ‘Unsafe Touch’
Sex educators generally consider the terms “safe touch” and “unsafe touch” to be better than “good” and “bad” touch.
It may be easy to classify being touched around your private parts as an example of “bad touch,” but sometimes there are natural physiological responses that could feel good, which may seem confusing to young people.
“Unsafe touch” can also cover certain forms of contact that might be “good” in other contexts.
“A hug is a ‘good’ touch, but if it is coming from someone that shouldn’t be hugging you, then it is ‘unsafe,’” Bowers said.
“People can also seem ‘good’ but can make unsafe choices,” Carnagey said. “So it’s best to use the terms ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe,’ and base your conversations around the child recognizing the circumstances that affect safety.”
Don’t Just Focus On ‘Stranger Danger’
“Children used to be taught the concept of ‘stranger danger,’ but the Nassar case is a good example of the flaw in that concept,” Carnagey said.
“An abuser is more often someone that a child knows or has some kind of prior connection with, so we must talk to children in terms of ‘tricky people,’ a term coined by Pattie Fitzgerald.”
This approach encourages parents to help their children recognize “tricky” or unsafe behavior versus trustworthy behavior.
“People who are trustworthy tell the truth, respect privacy, don’t ask children to keep secrets, ask grown-ups for help (not children), give you a safe feeling (not a scary ‘uh-oh’ feeling), follow family rules, and ask you to check with parents to get permission,” said Cavill, who created a podcast episode and a worksheet to help parents facilitate conversations about trust.
“Tricky people don’t do those things, or they do the opposite of those things.”
Emphasize They Can Always Come To You
It’s important for parents to “keep the conversation door open,” Cavill said.
“Kids will walk through that door to talk with you, but only if it’s open all of the time.”
Parents can create that kind of environment by consistently welcoming questions and conversations about sex and relationships.
In a lot of ways, actions speak louder than words.
The phrase “You can tell me anything” loses its meaning if parents respond to honest questions or information from children with punishments, aggressive reactions, elevated emotional responses or dismissiveness.
Parents should be aware of their verbal and nonverbal responses, even when the conversation is difficult ― or children may start to feel uncomfortable sharing information out of fear of the adult’s reaction.