How to talk to your kids about sexual abuse

As hockey player and activist Theo Fleury walks to Ottawa to raise awareness of childhood sexual abuse, one mom wonders how to explain the subject to her young kids.

Theo Fleury

Earlier this week on our way to school drop-off, we had hockey player Theo Fleury in our neighbourhood, promoting his Victor Walk. The Orange Movement aims to empower those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse by calling themselves victors rather than victims. I like it. My husband and I are not the biggest hockey fans, but we’d watched Fleury’s incredibly honest documentary, Playing with Fire ? (warning: not kid-friendly), and were moved by his story. He comes across as a very likeable, all-Canadian guy, who had terrible things happen to him. So we made a big deal as we passed the corner where the trucks and media were lined up.

What never really occurred to the adults in the car was that we might be getting into a very interesting verbal dance around sexual abuse. How much to tell the kids? How?

Son, age eight: “Who’s Theo Fleury?”

Me: “He was a famous hockey player who got um, hurt, when he was a kid.”

Son: “What happened to him?”

Me: [Silence, trying to ignore the question.]

Daughter, age five, insistent: “Mom! What happened to him?!”

Me: “Um, he was hurt by an adult that he trusted.”

Son: “Did he hurt his feelings?”

Me, uncomfortable, not enjoying the waters we’re wading in: “No, he got hurt physically. And maybe his feelings were hurt a bit, too. His, um, innocence was taken from him.”

Son: “Did he have to have surgery?”

Me, searching, looking desperately at my husband to jump in: “No, my love. (LONG PAUSE) You know how I tell you that you need to keep your private parts private? That we have to protect their privacy…?”

Husband: “— well he had that betrayed! (Looking at me for approval) Is that a good way to put it?”

More questions from the back seat, but I can’t seem to go there. The truth is scary and awful. I want to protect my own children’s innocence, but I also want them to know that they need to beware of people who can hurt them. Aaaagh. The parenting editor in me knows this is a “teachable moment.” I’m supposed to answer his questions in an age-appropriate way, tell him what to do in a gentle way and not leave him with more questions. But my instinct is to use the ol’ bait and switch.

Me, looking at my watch: “Wow, the bell must have gone already. Kids, I think you’ll be able to run to class before the anthem starts.”

As I said, I’m a parenting editor, so lucky for me (and you, too), I have expert advice at my fingertips to share. I fired off a quick email to my friend and colleague Alyson Schafer, author of two of my favourite go-to, realistic parenting books Honey, I Wrecked the Kids and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (currently available as e-books only). Here are Alyson’s tips for talking to kids about sexual abuse:

1. Like other difficult topics (death, sex, abuse, trauma, natural disasters, murder, abductions etc.), parents should relay information in a way that is age-appropriate for their child. Use clear and simple language. Metaphors and being ambiguous lead to misunderstandings and more questions. Don’t lie, but only share enough to answer the child’s current questions and concerns.

2. The essence of the talk should include:

For young kids: Our bodies are private and sacred. Only you say who can touch your body, when and how. If someone doesn’t listen to another person when they say, ” NO, don’t touch me,” it is abuse.

For older kids: Abuse means someone used their power to force someone else to do things they did not want to do. Sexual abuse is when they use that power and force to touch them in their private parts in sexual ways.

All kids should know: Sexual abuse is not okay. Like bullying — the person who is abused suffers for a long, long, long time feeling ashamed and hurt, even after the abuse ends. Fleury’s event is about speaking out to help the hurt and shame go away,  He is telling people you are not a victim — you are a victor! He wants people to know they can overcome the scares.

3. Be sure to watch your child’s face and body language for signs of distress or interest. Some children will not make much of this. Other children may have deep concerns, and want to talk more. Encourage them to ask any questions, either now — or later. Some children need to process information and circle back with questions later.

4. Reassure your child that she or he is safe by reviewing your families safety rules. If you don’t have safety rules — now is the time to put them in place!

Gah! Safety rules? Alyson says, “Don’t talk to strangers” is not enough. I’ve printed off Alyson’s street-proofing rules for starters and will be reviewing them with my husband and kids, because clearly, our talk is not done.

Theo Fleury’s Victor Walk reaches the steps of Parliament in Ottawa on May 23, 2013. Find out more at www.victorwalk.com.

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