“So, bud, what would you do if someone touched your private parts, or wanted you to touch theirs?”
“I’d tell a grown-up, like you or Daddy or a teacher.”
“That’s right. Now what if they said that you’d be in really big trouble if you told, maybe even get sent to jail, or they said they would hurt me if you told. Would you still tell?”
……I couldn’t see Zip’s face behind me, but his hesitation filled the car.
“I don’t know…Should I?”
I’ve had this conversation with Zip, in some form or another, several times over the past few years. Our impromptu chat on this particular afternoon, initiated by me as we drove across town, reminded me why talking to my kids about sexual abuse isn’t a once and done kind of discussion.
When I was in graduate school and then working as a therapist, one of my areas of special interest was trauma and abuse. I saw lots of kids who had been sexually abused. I listened to stories of abuse at case staffings and read them in my textbooks. I can picture in my mind’s eye how these situations unfold. I’ve walked alongside children and families as they deal with the devastating effects of abuse and try to find a light at the end of the tunnel. I know the numbers: Approximately 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be the victim of sexual abuse. As a momma, it is scary, scary stuff. Maybe scarier because I don’t know how to prevent it.
There are the obvious steps I can take to reduce my children’s risk:
- Trust my gut.
- Don’t allow the boys to be around someone who is known or suspected to have abused a child.
- Teach my children to be assertive and help them develop a strong network of friends and supportive adults. (Perpetrators may target children who are passive, isolated, or in some way other way vulnerable.)
- Talk to them about appropriate and inappropriate touch. Encourage them to listen to their gut and tell me or their daddy, if something doesn’t feel right.
Children don’t tell because they are confused – maybe they don’t have a word for what is happening, or maybe they can’t make sense of the idea that someone they trust would do something so heinous, or maybe the abuse creates physical arousal even though they don’t want the abuse to happen. Maybe the child is a boy and thinks boys can’t be victims of abuse. Children don’t tell because they are scared – scared of getting in trouble, scared of what will happen to their family, scared their parents will be devastated. And oftentimes abusers tell the child that the abuse needs to be kept secret or bad things will happen.
- Your private parts are the parts that are covered by a bathing suit. No one should touch or ask to see them except you, Mommy and Daddy when they need to help you bathe, and the doctor for your check-up. Older children and adults should not ask you to touch or look at their private parts.
- All body parts have names. My 3-year-old knows the term scrotum, which can make for the occasional awkward situation. (Imagine “Mommaaaaaa, my bike seat is squishing my scrotum!” hollered across the neighborhood.) But kids need to be comfortable talking about their bodies, and that comes from us as parents. Otherwise, how can we expect them to be comfortable telling us if someone touches them or even to know what to say?
- Touching your private parts often feels good. I tell my boys this because it’s true and it is possible that if they are ever abused it may feel good physically. I don’t want them to be confused by that.
- It is okay to say “No,” if a grown-up wants you to do something that you think is wrong. As parents, we repeatedly tell our kids to listen to adults. They also need to know there are times it is 100% a-okay to be uncooperative. Along a similar vein, pushing kids to hug or kiss someone when they don’t want to can send really mixed messages about their right to choose who they have physical contact with. So, we also let our boys know they have the right to choose when and whether they want to be affectionate. (That was a personal struggle for me when Zip went through his phase of refusing to hug his Grammy.)
- Don’t keep secrets that make you feel unsafe, unhappy, or uncomfortable. We just ordered the book “Do You Have A Secret?” by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos, which is written to help children differentiate between good from bad secrets.
- Sometimes good people do bad things, and sometimes people we like make bad choices. I think this is a good message in general, as it teaches children not to see people in black and white terms. And when it comes to abuse, this message is important – children are often abused by someone they trust and have come to love, which can be extremely confusing.
- If someone touches you or wants you to touch them, tell Momma or Daddy right away. We will not be angry with you and you won’t be in trouble. We will make sure it stops.
- Sometimes abusers tell kids things to make them scared to tell. They do this because they know what they are doing is wrong and they don’t want to get in trouble. Don’t believe them. Tell us anyway. I have shared with the boys examples of what an abuser might say. You’ll be in trouble. Your parents will be really upset. They’ll think your lying. It will break up your family. I’ll kill myself, if you tell. I’ll have to go to jail and then who would take care of my family? I’ll kill your mom if you tell. I share this with them because these are the things abusers say to keep kids quiet, and I don’t want my boys to keep quiet.
I will do everything in my power (short of never letting them out of my sight) to reduce the chances of them being abused in the first place – by trusting my gut and by not putting them in any situations I know are unsafe. I am also doing waht I can to increase the likelihood that, if something were to happen, they would tell me right away so they don’t have to suffer in silence for weeks or months or years.And, if one of my boys ever does come to me and tell me he’s been abused, I will:
- Believe him – I will not doubt him or question whether it is true.
- Be calm – Even if I am screaming and crying inside, I will do my best not to fall apart in front of my child, because he needs to know we will get through this.
- Blame the abuser – Because that is, 100%, where responsibility for abuse lies. I will not ask my boys “Why did you…” or “Why didn’t you…,” because it just doesn’t matter.
Have you talked to your kids about abuse? At what age did you start? Do you have any resources or tips to share? Scroll on down to the comments and share your experiences!