How to Talk to Children about Sexual Abuse
Won't I scare my children unnecessarily by talking about sexual abuse?
Not if you realize that teaching your children about sexual abuse is as important as any other rule of health and safety, and approach it that way. You don't worry about scaring your children when cautioning them to be careful of cars, for example, but you do explain that cars can be dangerous, and that there are safety rules to protect children. You can bring the subject of sexual abuse into daily life and make it part of ongoing talks with your children about safety, rather than presenting it as a one-time-only lecture on an unnatural subject.
Okay, but how can I talk about sexual abuse?
By becoming acquainted with these basic facts yourself, you will be able to teach them to your children in your own way and in your own words.
Children need to know that:
- Their bodies belong to them and no one has the right to touch them without permission. Children have traditionally been taught to comply with adults' requests, but they need to know that, regarding touching, they have the right to say NO, even if the touch seems accidental or even if the person touching is a relative or trusted adult. Obviously, children need to know the names of parts of their bodies, whether the words are the correct words or euphemisms used among the family. One way to explain private parts is to say that they are the parts of the body covered by a swim suit.
- There are different kinds of touching. Talk about touch that feels good (hugs, comforting), touch that feels bad (hitting, pinching), and touch that makes children feel "funny" or uncomfortable or scared, or that gives them a feeling of "uh-oh." For example, discuss what reaction they might have if someone touched their private parts, made a request that seemed odd, or "accidentally" touched them.
- They can trust their feelings about kinds of touching and always ask a trusted adult if they're not sure. Most children, even young ones, can tell when another person's touch or request or behavior makes them feel scared or "funny" or uncomfortable. They need to be encouraged to trust those feelings so that they can recognize behavior that can lead to sexual abuse. It may be helpful to play a "what if" game with children to clarify their feelings and practice ways to deal with a situation. For example, you can say "What if someone put his hand on your bottom?" Children can think about what their reaction might be and can talk about what they could do about it (for example, say "I don't like that!" and run away and tell someone).
- They can tell their parents or a trusted adult about anyone whose behavior makes them uncomfortable or who touches their private parts or who asks them to touch someone else's private parts; and that they will be listened to. Children must be free to ask about adult behavior that confuses them, even when it is behavior not related to sexual abuse. For example, the child who is told not to ask about Aunt Sue's whiskers learns also not to ask why Uncle Steve wants her to sit on his lap when he's alone with her.
- Being asked to keep an unpleasant secret may mean danger of sexual abuse. If there is one central clue to the possible or actual sexual abuse of your child it is the child's withdrawal into secrecy. No adult or older child has the right to ask or tell your child to keep an unpleasant secret. Explain to your child the difference between a good secret and a bad secret. A good secret is something pleasant and fun and exciting when it is later shared with others-for example, a surprise birthday party, or when Daddy secretly brought the puppy home. But a bad secret feels like a burden, it doesn't make a person feel good, and it is intended never to be shared with others. Your child can say, "No! My family doesn't allow bad secrets."
From "Talking About Child Sexual Abuse," by Cornelia Spelman
©1985 Prevent Child Abuse America.
All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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