Jeanne Meyer, Coordinator of Children’s Advocacy Services at Family & Children’s Center
Child sexual abuse is largely a hidden crime, so it is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who are sexually abused at some time during their childhood. It is estimated that one in 10 children experience sexual abuse before the age of 18 in our country. Very often media sources cover stories about children who are abused, abducted and even murdered, usually by strangers. Sexual abusers are more likely to be people we know, and care about. They are family members or friends, neighbors or babysitters – many hold responsible positions in society or have trusting relationships with that child.
The idea of someone molesting your child is terrifying for any parent. Parents understandably struggle with conveying messages of staying safe without scaring their children. And constantly worrying about them can cause stress and countless hours of lost sleep. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Talking about sexual abuse with your child can be as comfortable as talking about crossing the street.
Here are a few tips to help parents approach this important conversation with their kids:
- Frame the conversation for yourself as a way of loving your child:Starting from a loving place and not a scared place will help create the calm environment for your child. This will help them really listen to the words you’re saying. If you’re frightened and stressed, they will react primarily to that fear and not register what you’re saying as much.
- Begin talking to them as young as 2 years old:This may seem very early but children under 12 are most at risk at 4 years old.Even if they can’t speak well, children at this age are busy figuring out the world. And they certainly understand and remember a lot more than adults usually realize.
- Teach them the actual names of their private parts:When you begin teaching them parts of their body like ears, eyes, and toes, also teach them the real names of their private parts like “vagina” and “penis” and not their “cute” names. This gives them the right words to use if someone is hurting them and makes sure the person being told understands what’s happening. It’s also important to teach both female and male anatomy because the abuser can be of any gender and they need to know how to describe what happens to them.
- Share the only instances when their private parts can be seen and touched: An age appropriate concept for a young child to understand is that nobody – including a parent or caregiver – should see or touch their private parts (what a swimming suit covers up) – unless they’re keeping them clean, safe, or healthy.
- Teach them that private parts are special:When talking about this topic, it’s important to not create a taboo or dirty feeling around their private parts. Instead parents can teach their child that their private parts are so special that they’re just for them and no one else, unless someone is helping them keep their private parts clean, safe, or healthy.
- Teach them (and respect) their right to control their bodies:This flies in the face of what we often teach our children – that adults have absolute authority over everything and children have to do what they’re told. The problem is that this only teaches them to not speak up when they’re feeling hurt and scared because of what an adult is telling them to do.
- Explain that no one should physically hurt them, especially in their private parts: 85% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone they know. It may be a parent, relative, family friend, neighbor, teacher, or religious leader. It may be a man, woman, or another child.
- Encourage them to trust their gut around their safety:While parents shouldn’t instill a fear of people in their child, they should support their child in trusting their gut instinct. By trusting their intuition, children will both be more empowered around making their own choices about who’s safe instead of relying primarily on what a parent told them. This is important because a parent won’t always be there with them.
- Explain that a secret is still a secret when shared with the parents:Many abusers tell their child victims that what happened was a secret and to not tell anyone, especially their parents. So it’s important to teach them early on that secrets are still kept secret if they tell their mom or dad. Additionally, they should understand anyone who wants them to keep secrets from their parents shouldn’t be trusted and they should definitely tell their parents about it.
- Tell them that you will believe them if someone is hurting them and they won’t be in trouble: Many abusers tell their victims that no one will believe them and create a sense of shame around what happened. Children in general, usually blame themselves and take responsibility for things that happen in their lives, regardless of who’s actually responsible for it.
But here is the most important thing to do. If you remember nothing else, remember this – these conversations should be ongoing, open, and casual. You wouldn’t tell your child just once to not cross the street without looking both ways. You’d tell them several times and probably even quiz them about what they need to do when they want to cross the road. It’s the same deal for sexual abuse – except you have this conversation from a much earlier age and it changes as your child grows up and becomes a teenager. While nothing can keep your child 100% safe, if you keep an open, casual dialogue with your child, keep an eye out for signs, and pay attention to how your child responds to people, you’ve significantly reduced the risk of someone sexually abusing your child.