For some students the school year has already begun, while others are apprehensively awaiting the arrival of their own. All over the country parents are reminding their children not to talk to strangers. You’re reminding them to do their best, work hard, and do what their teachers tell them. Teachers have been met and after-school arrangements have been made. You’ve given them the tools to be academically successful. You’ve taught them how to stay safe on the playground and on the trek to and from school.
Did you remember to have the talk?
No, not This is where babies come from. The one about personal safety that you should have every year. This isn’t about playground or classroom bullies. I’m talking about sexual abuse. Please don’t write to tell me you had that chat with your fourth-grader at the beginning of kindergarten. While I think it’s great you’ve talked with them at least once, children need repetition for learning. They need to hear this over and over. Every year is a new stage in their cognitive development. They hear, process, and understand things differently at the beginning of second grade than at the beginning of first. Ask elementary teachers if they don’t eye their class on the first day and think to themselves, “Wow! I forgot how little they are on the first day!”
Here are 10 tips for having that chat with your little guy or gal:
1 – Get serious. What’s important to you will be important to your child. If you try and remind your child as she walks out the door on her first day not to let anyone touch her, it’s not going to stick. Simple as that. If your child’s teacher taught math that way, you’d be in the principal’s office in a heartbeat! Talking to your child about something so serious shouldn’t be that way, either. Choose a time when you know you aren’t going to be disrupted. You also don’t want your child a million miles away mentally. Interrupting your child’s video game or favorite TV show isn’t likely to score any brownie points, nor is it going to help you get your child’s full attention. If you don’t get to finish, that’s okay. Pick up where you left off another time.
2 – Lighten up. I know, I just said be serious. But you don’t need to scare your child with an overly-serious or dramatic tone, either. Putting together a jigsaw puzzle? Making dinner together? Sharing a coloring book? Those can be times to slide safety into the conversation in a casual, authentic way. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Talking with your child should be age-appropriate. This isn’t the sex/reproduction talk. A kindergartner doesn’t need to know about sperm and ova. A 7-year-old doesn’t need to know exactly how the sperm and ovum meet.
3 – Don’t assume your child is too young. According to the CDC, over half of all rape victims in this country are under age 18, and roughly 21% of them are under age 12. Darkness to Light reports 20% of the victims of childhood sexual abuse are under the age of 8. There are perpetrators who abuse children who are only a few months old. Abuse may have been over and done with long before you decide your 10-year-old child is old enough to comprehend. Talk to your kindergartner or your pre-schooler.
4 – Practice. If the thought of talking to your child makes you nervous, guess what: you’re normal! If you aren’t sure to say, bringing it up with your child isn’t the right time to figure it out. Grab one of your friends – maybe another parent who is just as nervous – and do some role playing. Pretend your friend is your child. Let your friend ask questions a child might ask. Then switch. You never know – your friend might have some really great ways of talking about it that you might want to try with your own child, or vice versa. Jot down some important points, just a word or two each, on a sticky note to remind you what you want to cover.
5 – Don’t be nervous/embarrassed. It’s a tall order, I know. But it’s crucial your child feels comfortable talking to you about her body. If you’re embarrassed and red or giggly, your child might not take it seriously, may become aware that this is something to be embarrassed about, or may decide not to disclose something to you because she doesn’t want to embarrass you. You don’t want to accidentally plant a seed of shame. Practicing with a friend can help you work through the nervousness.
6 – Use correct words for body parts. Perpetrators love it when a child doesn’t know the correct word for body parts because if the child chooses to disclose abuse, she’ll likely use a word the perpetrator taught her, leaving the person to whom she discloses either confused or clueless. If a child tells her teacher the neighbor asked to pet her rabbit, the teacher will assume the child has a furry four-legged critter at home. A friend once told me she was certain she’d know what the child meant, because it would be in context. No, actually, it wouldn’t be. Children don’t always wait for conversations about abuse to tell. They do it when they can’t hold it in anymore. It might be incredibly random. If the person to whom she discloses looks confused or is dismissive, the child may decide it was a bad idea to tell, and shut down. Why take chances? If you’re talking with a small child and still having a hard time using the correct words, consider rephrasing it as places their bathing suits cover.
7 – Ask questions. Sometimes children surprise us with how much they know, and how much they misunderstand. Asking your child to tell you what she already knows allows you to skip drilling something into their heads they already know so you can focus on clearing up misconceptions.
8 – Make it okay to say no to adults. It’s easy for children to say no to strangers. But when they know they’re supposed to respect adults and do as they’re told, it makes saying no to Grandpa or Uncle or Cousin or Reverend or Coach very difficult. Children need to know that, while obedience is expected in most cases, there are times when it is okay to say no. Over 90% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by a family member or family friend. According to Darkness to Light,
The younger the victim, the more likely it is that the abuser is a family member. 50% of those molesting a child under 6 were family members. 23% of those abusing a 12-17 year-old child were family members (Snyder, 2000).
9 – Make it okay to talk to you. Let her know you’ll love her no matter what. Don’t promise not to get angry, because you will break that promise. But do let your child know that if she talks to you and you seem angry or upset, it’s not her fault and it isn’t directed at her. You’re sad or angry at the person who hurt her.
10 – Make it okay to talk about with other adults. You’ve done your job. You were calm and serious, but not scary. She knows you love her no matter what, and that you won’t be angry with her for telling. Disclosing abuse can be terrifying, especially if threats were involved. So many parents tell me they have close relationships with their children, and they know their kids would tell them if something is wrong. Never assume anything. As much as parents prefer to be the default, you need to let your child know if she isn’t comfortable talking to you, it’s okay to tell another trusted adult.
Bonus: Above all, make sure your child understands that nothing a child ever says or does causes sexual abuse. The fault always lies with the perpetrator.
For more tips on talking to your child, please see the links in the right sidebar.