Preventing and Stopping Sexual Abuse
Tips to Help You Talk with Your Kids
Sexual abuse is not a topic most parents want to think about, let alone talk to their child about. But, consider this, according to RAINN.org (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network):
- 15 percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12.
- 7 percent of girls in grades 5-8 and 12 percent of girls in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.
- 93 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker.
That’s why, according to Becky Callender, project coordinator for S-O-S, Indiana’s oldest rape crisis center, “The most important thing a parent can do to help reduce risk is to talk to their children about personal safety.”
Having such a conversation might not always be easy, but it is part of our role as parents and protectors. As Dawn Bontrager, local therapist, LCSW, said, “While we can’t always protect them, we can give them tools and always be there for them as a support system.”
So when and how should a parent talk to their child? “Conversations will be much less awkward if they're started at an early age,” Becky said. “Also, the more uncomfortable a parent acts when broaching the subject, the more awkward it'll be for their child. They can sense our fear.”
According to Becky and Dawn, the key is to start when the child is young. “The conversation should start early and continue into early adulthood, always at an age-appropriate level,” Becky said. “As soon as a child is old enough to identify body parts, they can be told ‘those parts covered by a bathing suit are private’ and that only parents or doctors with parental supervision should see or touch those parts when necessary for health reasons.”
As Dawn pointed out, in teaching children about their bodies, parents need to remember that their bodies are their own. “A lot of times our kids’ bodies aren’t their own. We tell them to go hug so-and-so and they aren’t allowed to say no. Do we hug someone we don’t want to? No, but we often unknowingly teach our kids to forget about their own feelings, so they don’t hurt someone else’s.”
When School Starts
The conversation becomes even more important as children enter school and spend more time away from their parents. “Pre-K and elementary-aged students should be taught about good touches and bad touches, and that it's okay to say NO when they're being made to feel uncomfortable, that they have the right and responsibility to protect their own bodies,” Becky said.
Dawn pointed out that parents need to teach their kids that it’s not just about strangers. The conversation needs to include family members. “We need to teach our kids that nobody has the right to touch their body and this includes relatives. We think about strangers, but nobody has the right to touch their body. But if anybody does, they need to come and tell their parents. Whether it’s a stranger or family member or if the perpetrator says not to tell anyone, the child needs to know that the mom and dad will protect them. Our children need to know they are safe – emotionally and physically – and that their home is a place where they can talk about what’s going on.”
Tweens and Teens
When kids enter middle and high school, the conversation needs to grow as peer pressure and dating relationships enter the picture. “There is a lot of pressure by peers to be in relationships even early in grade school, so it's never too early to start conversations about age-appropriate behaviors, personal responsibility, and setting and respecting boundaries,” said Becky. “Students feel so much peer pressure to be doing what their friends and classmates are doing. They need to hear that it's okay not to participate in those activities and to say no when they are pressured to do so.
“Other very important topics to discuss with middle and high school aged students are date rape drugs, which are used prevalently in our community, as well as dating violence. As many as one in four students will experience some type of violence in their relationship. That's extremely disturbing! All of these should be regular topics of conversation long before students reach college age. Again, the ability to approach and converse with a parent about any and all of these topics is the most important thing in reducing risk.”
It’s important to remember that conversation is key, but it’s not just a one-time shot. “Don't overwhelm them with one long conversation. Start early and make it an ongoing conversation. Let them ask questions and answer them honestly. Assure them that they can come to you with any question or curiosity,” Becky said.
She went on to warn, “Don't force your child to rely on their peers for accurate information because the information they have is rarely 100 percent accurate!”
Just as important as the on-going conversation is ongoing observation. As Dawn said, “Observation is key to knowing if something is going on. You need to talk to them, but you also have to pay attention to their behavior. When somebody has violated them, their behavior changes. Know your child. If a violation happens, they will be quiet, withdrawn, angry and act out more. When you see a behavior change that is not what they are used to, you need to talk to your child and get to the bottom of it. You need to stay in communication with your kids. Talk to them. Have evening meals together. Pay attention. I believe creating an emotionally safe environment for your child will help protect them, but make sure they know your job is to take care of them. It’s not their responsibility to hold on to something as big as someone being hurtful to them.”