With recent media coverage of prominent figures in our community committing, being accused of, or found guilty of sexual abuse, you may be wondering how to address it. This news can be shocking to adults and children when they know this person. During these times, it is helpful to provide tools for parents and kids to know what to do.
It is important to explain that in 90 percent of sexual abuse cases, the victim knows their abuser. This means it is likely someone that the victim, and the victim’s family, knows and trusts*.
How do we approach this conversation with children? How do we begin to explain that one of their heroes may have taken part in horrific act?
First, let us take a step back and recognize that this conversation will vary, depending on the age of the child.
Talking with Teens
There is a fair chance that teenagers will know about the latest news before their parents become aware of it, thanks to social media.
Teenagers will appreciate open communication and transparency. Let the teen or child guide the conversation. If they approach you with rumors, or what they may have read online, it is best to acknowledge that yes; terrible things can be done by anyone, including public figures, professional athletes, politicians and mentors.
Take this time to reiterate that your teenager can come to you any time that they feel unsafe, and that you will not be angry if they tell you that something horrible happened to them, no matter who was involved. Encourage them to tell you or someone who they feel safe with about their concern.
Additionally, a way to prevent any type of inappropriate activity from happening could be to suggest that your teen utilize an “open door policy,” meaning that they keep a door (at home, school or otherwise) open when engaging with adults one-on-one. Since there is strength in number, we also recommend the idea of a sleepover buddy, someone to talk with while at an event or with a group. Whenever your teen wants to stay the night somewhere, ask them who their buddy will be.
Finally, talk with your teen about using safe word or a code word. This is something they can say or text if they feel unsafe and need you to pick them up immediately.
Talking with Younger Kids
Parents can help protect children by explaining what appropriate boundaries look like between them and other kids or adults. This conversation should ideally begin as early as pre-school, when a child is entering unknown territory with lots of new faces.
However, before you sit down and have this conversation with your child, take some time to examine your own comfort levels in talking with your child, especially about their bodies and body parts. For many parents, this can feel uncomfortable; but it does not have to be.
We first recommend that you teach your child to use language regarding private parts that can be easily identified by adults. A great reference tool to check out is “My Body Belongs to Me” from the Channing Bete Company. It is a short booklet for parents and caregivers to read aloud to children, with scenarios about behavior that can make kids uncomfortable, like tickling or touching.
Next, try helping your child in identifying safe adults. Ask your child who they feel comfortable talking to if they are worried or concerned about themselves or someone else. A helpful and fun tool to use with your child is Lauren’s Kids Trusted Triangle worksheet. The worksheet helps children name three “grown up buddies” that make them feel safe.
Questions to Ask
Young children may overhear something about a recent event and have questions, especially if it’s a local figure in the community who has committed a crime against a minor. When digging a little deeper into the conversation, it’s important to let your child lead the discussion, giving them a chance to ask questions.
Try asking your child “What have you heard from your friends at school about this case?” Make sure to keep your tone light, to ensure your child feels safe about bringing up this topic.
Cover the basics, without all of the graphic details: what the person chose to do was bad, and it is never the fault of the abused child.
Then follow up with a scenario that will allow your child to think critically, such as, “What would you do if someone made you feel uncomfortable or asked you to keep a secret from me?”
As a parent, you want to emphasize, that if anyone ever touches them, tries to touch them or asks them to keep secrets that they can come to you or their “grown up buddies” from the Trusted Triangle worksheet. Remind them they won’t be in trouble for telling.
The goal of having this talk with your child isn’t to make them feel fearful or distrusting of adults; it’s simply one way for parents to encourage open, honest communication to establish trust, as well as provide ideas on what to do if a situation doesn’t feel good to the child.
For example, with an appropriate adult-child relationship, this means that the adult respects the child and their boundaries, uses respectful language and tone and keeps communication transparent, which helps the child feel safe. The goal is that we want the child to learn what a healthy relationship looks like with an adult.
Additional resources on this topic are available through the Darkness to Light website, https://www.d2l.org/resources/. Be sure to check out the Parents section, where you’ll find prevention tools, statistics, tips on talking with kids and more.