Your child’s safety is your top priority, especially when you trust coaches, teachers, religious leaders or daycare staff to maintain that safety. Unfortunately, we’ve all learned how sexual abuse by trusted authority figures can catch even the most attentive parents off guard.
While no child should ever face sexual abuse – it sadly happens to too many kids. However, you can help your children identify abuse by helping them understand what sexual abuse is, what it can look like, how they can describe and identify it, and how they can remove themselves from a bad situation.
How can I talk to my kids about sexual abuse?
When kids don’t understand sexual abuse, they can struggle to know what’s happening or why it’s wrong– even if it causes them physical or psychological distress. Many parents don’t broach the subject of sex because it can be an uncomfortable or taboo subject to discuss. However, there are ways parents can help their kids understand when they’re in danger without getting into the graphic details. If you worry that your child is facing sexual abuse, here are a few ways you can help them recognize when their safety is being violated:
- Teach your kids about boundaries: Children often test the limits of their bodily autonomy when they’re toddlers. How parents respond to a toddler’s newfound independence can shape their children’s reactions in future scenarios. For example, if your toddler rejects your request for affection and you respect it, it can help them identify someone who doesn’t respect their boundaries as a potential threat.
- Teach them why their private parts should remain private: Alongside boundaries, explaining to your child where others should and should not touch them is equally important. Of course, this can be tricky to explain, as context is often vital in these scenarios. Tell your child that the only people they should be naked in front of are you or their doctor when you take them in for a medical check-up.
- Teach them how to identify uncomfortable situations: Kids can feel uncomfortable talking about sexual abuse. Even if it makes them feel guilty or shameful, they may not fully understand how they were violated. This can create challenges for them when defining or describing their experiences to others. In France, a child protection group called Les Papillons uses the “if you can’t say it, write it” approach to help kids open up about sexual abuse. They say their method allows kids to describe what they’re experiencing on paper without fear and intimidation. Kids submit their writings to designated mailboxes outside schools, sports clubs and other places accessible to children. Then, child safety specialists collect the letters to review and assess the kids’ claims. While you may not have the same resources as a child protection group, getting your child to write about their abuse can help you understand what’s happening and take action.
- Teach them how to get out of uncomfortable situations: In some cases, your child could avoid sexual abuse before it happens to them. You can tell them that if any adult tries to get them alone that it’s okay to yell for help, resist their requests or say they need to leave, especially if the adult asks to see their private parts.
- Tell them they can tell you anything: Some children don’t say anything about being abused because they’re worried they will get in trouble. Their abuser may also perpetuate that fear. Creating an open dialogue with your child can reinforce that you love them, believe in them, and are on their side if they are concerned.
Give your kids the strength and courage to push back
No parent wants their child to face abuse by an adult they trust. But when parents give their kids the knowledge and resources necessary to recognize sexually abusive behavior, they can hold their abusers accountable.