It is very common to have a hard time discussing sexual assault, as typically it may lead to questions and conversations about sex. While there is not ever a ‘right’ time to talk about it, the best time to discuss it is as early as possible.
Here are 10 key points to address when talking to your child about sexual abuse.
- Teach them the right name for body parts. ‘Soft’ names can often confuse children and make it seem less threatening/harmful. Teaching the correct anatomical name for private parts stresses the importance of that body part and decreases the likelihood of them being the target of an abuser. It will also make it clearer if your child discloses they have been touched by someone.
- Encourage your child to ask questions about puzzling adult behavior. Children who are encouraged to ask questions about puzzling behavior are more likely to feel comfortable disclosing odd or inappropriate behaviors they see in adults. It also teaches them social responsibility and they may be more likely to inform you when something is suspicious.
- Teach your child there are 3 reasons why any other person should be touching them: for Cleanliness, Safety, or Health. Tell your child that no one should ask them to touch their own or someone else’s body parts, except for 3 clear circumstances. First, if the child needs assistance with cleaning (usually provided by you, the caregiver). Second, if safety is involved. Third, if health is involved – a pediatrician or a parent are the usual roles this comes in, checking normal growth and development.
- Encourage Body Autonomy. Teach your children to say ‘no’ and ‘stop’ when they feel uncomfortable. Model this behavior when interacting with them. Body autonomy encourages kids that their body is their own and they are the ones in charge of it.
- Remind them it is not their fault. No matter how it started or what others report, inform your child that it would never be their fault. Often, targets of sexual abuse may be reluctant to come forward because they have guilt.
- Develop a safe word. Teach children a safe word they can tell you when they need to talk without judgment. This safe word can be used when encountering strangers, needing to talk, or feeling uncomfortable in a social situation they wish to leave.
- Encourage your child to trust their gut. If your child feels uncomfortable in any way, encourage them to act on it and to go to a safe space. Safety is key and if a child does not feel comfortable – even if they cannot place exactly why – tell them to find and tell a trusted adult.
- A secret is still a secret BUT when is it important to share with adults? Set a rule for secrets. Any secret that makes you feel bad, scared, or confused (or just icky) should not be kept. Remind your child that if an adult says ‘shhh it’s a secret’ and the child feels bad, scared, or confused, then it is not a good secret and is okay to inform a safe adult. When it comes to secrets, ensure your child understands the difference between a safe secret, like a gift, and a secret that makes them feel icky. They should know they won’t be in trouble by telling you a secret they do not feel safe keeping.
- Tell them you’ll believe them if someone is hurting them. Sometimes our kids may be frightened to expose information because an adult may have informed them ‘no one will believe you anyway’. Let your child know that no matter what, you’ll believe what they say. We should not discourage our children from reporting or talking about harm that may be coming to them, no matter who it’s about.
- Remember, you are your child’s advocate, their safe space. Even if you have not stated it explicitly, take the time to do so now. Encourage them to be honest, even if they’re scared.
The easiest way to have this conversation is to incorporate it in daily activities. This discussion may naturally occur when you’re helping them with bath time, they’re running around without clothes, or they’re getting ready to go out. Keep in mind too that it’s important to have this conversation more than once, and continue it even as they reach adolescence.
If you suspect your child may have been abused, or they come forward with concerns of abuse, please contact your pediatrician, the police department, or the Children’s Place (LINK). We are encouraging anyone who has experienced (or suspects) abuse to come forward.
Ashley Doss, MA
School Psychology Program
Stephen F. Austin State University
Ashley has received training at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX. She is currently completing her doctoral level internship year with Ptarmigan Connections.