In light of recent publicized events involving high-profile individuals being accused of sexual harassment, many parents are wondering: How should I talk to my children about this subject? What’s the best way to teach children about boundaries, power, expectations, safety, and respect?
It’s important to recognize that what starts as harassment can progress to abuse. Being aware and informed can help reduce a child’s exposure and the risk factors involved in harassment and sexual abuse.
The truth about sexual abuse
Statistics reveal that 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases involve someone in that child’s circle of trust. It is very common for children NOT to report the abuse, or if they do make a disclosure, it will often not be immediate. Only 1 in 10 victims will actually report their abuse.
Antoinette Laskey, MD, medical director for the Center for Safe and Healthy Families at Primary Children’s Hospital says, “Adults have a responsibility to children to be aware of behaviors that are crossing boundaries and potentially exposing a child to sexual abuse. But even more importantly, we have a duty to listen and believe children who try to tell an adult about something that is happening to them that makes them feel uncomfortable.”
How can you help?
- Educate children to recognize the two ways sexual harassment and abuse can happen:
- Touching inappropriately
- Non-Touching, which can involve technology, sexually explicit language, inappropriate pictures, exposing self to a child, exposing the child to sexually explicit material, or forcing the child to undress.
- Make a safety plan that includes the following guidance from Utah’s “One with Courage”campaign:
- Uh-Oh – Teach children to listen to their “uh-oh” gut feeling, and if they are sad, scared, nervous, or confused they should talk to a trusted adult.
- Say No – Tell your child if someone is hurting their body or making them feel uncomfortable they can say NO in a loud, clear voice with authority. Teach them to resist by yelling, screaming, and getting away from the situation.
- Go Tell – Together with your child make a list of three grown-ups they can trust to tell.
- Be a good listener while keeping these things in mind:
- Sometimes children don’t understand what they saw, heard or experienced, but they know it made them confused or uncomfortable.
- Listening with an open mind and patience is important for them to be truly heard.
- Let your child know they can tell you anything and that you will listen.
- Talk about good secrets vs. bad secrets. Good secrets make us feel happy and good inside, such as a surprise birthday party. Bad secrets make us feel sad, scared, or confused. Encourage your child to talk to you if they have a bad secret or if they’re feeling uncomfortable.
- If you don’t understand exactly what your child is trying to tell you, rather than asking additional directive questions, try saying, “Tell me more about that."
- Teach kids to respect their own boundaries, understand other people’s boundaries, and have conversations with your children about respect and consent. This is a great kid’s video explaining consent.
What should you do if a child discloses sexual abuse?
Your response to a child’s disclosure can greatly impact their journey of healing. While sexual abuse is a difficult subject to discuss, here’s how you can respond effectively:
- Stay calm: It’s completely normal to have many emotional responses, however, remaining calm will allow the child to be comforted. Know that you’ll have a time and place to process your own feelings about the disclosure.
- Don’t bombard them with too many questions: Open-ended clarifying questions or statements, however, are appropriate such as:
- Who did that?
- Tell me more.
- Where did this happen?
- When did this happen?
- Be supportive: Never blame the child for what happened. Let them know you are glad they told you, and that they did the right thing by telling you.
- Believe the child: Most children do not lie about abuse.
- Seek help: Child sexual abuse is against the law and it is mandatory for all citizens 18 and older to report suspected child abuse. An anonymous report can be made through Utah’s Child Protective Servicesat 855-323-3237. If the child is in immediate danger, call 911.
- If a child has experienced sexual abuse, he or she may benefit from a specialized medical exam. Primary Children’s Center for Safe and Healthy Families has a team of medical providers located throughout Utah who are trained to work with victims of child sexual abuse. The team will listen to you about your concerns and decide on the best plan of care for your child.
- Behavioral health: Seek therapy services for the child and parents.