As the #MeToo movement grows, conversations about sexual harassment and assault are no longer happening behind closed doors and in hushed tones. Facing the reality of sexual violence is necessary. It can also be difficult, particularly for parents. We want to do whatever we can to protect our kids from sexual abuse and assault, but the mere thought of someone harming our children can be overwhelming or even trigger memories of our own traumas. It makes sense that some of us are reluctant to bring the issue up with our children. Fortunately, there are several ways we as parents can help minimize our kids’ risk of sexual abuse or assault that rely on cultivating loving, trusting family bonds.
Build trust The most effective prevention against abuse is building, “[an] honest relationship where children can ask questions and share feelings without judgment,” says Audrey Rastin, manager of prevention and public education at Boost Child and Youth Advocacy Centre. “This will increase the likelihood that they will come to us when they are uncomfortable.”
Answer questions about bodies—even the awkward ones—with fact-based, age-appropriate information. This lets kids know it’s OK for them to talk to you about anything.
And help children articulate their feelings to show you accept and care about their emotions. For example, tell your preschooler post-tantrum, “That was some really big anger! We call that feeling ‘furious!’” If your child is non-verbal, there may be alternative ways to help them express feelings, like signing, movement exercises or even art.
Talk about bodies Kids who can correctly name their body parts, including their genitals, are less vulnerable to abuse. Sexual predators want to keep their actions secret. According to a 1995 study of convicted child abusers, children who can talk about their bodies don’t make appealing targets as they’re more likely to tell if someone touches them inappropriately.
Naming body parts can begin at any age. You can even do it with babies during bathtime—simply name each body part as your wash it: “Let’s wash behind your ears…let’s scrub your back…let’s make sure your vulva is clean.” Reading age-appropriate books is a great way to teach kids about their bodies as well. The Bare Naked Book by Kathy Stinson is fantastic for younger kids. Sex Is a Funny Word is great for older ones.
Teach them to keep surprises, not secrets Talk to your children about the difference between secrets and surprises. Keeping secrets is OK when it is part of surprise like a party or gift. This kind of surprise is meant to make people feel good.
Adults should never ask children to keep permanent secrets, or secrets about their bodies. Let kids know they should tell an adult if anyone—even a friend or another family member—asks them to keep that kind of a secret. And let them know that, while it’s best to tell about touching secrets right away, it’s OK to disclose at any time.
Guide them to trust their gut Talk to your children about their “uh-oh” feeling, which Rastin describes as “an uncomfortable feeling in their tummy that tells them something might be wrong.” According to Statistics Canada, nearly 90 percent of child and youth victims know their abuser, so it’s important that they can trust their own instincts and not just rely on adults around them. “When they get this feeling, teach them to talk to a grown-up that they trust.” Help children identify three or four other adults who they can go to when they need help, and explain that, if someone harms or touches them in ways they don’t like, they can tell as many people as they need to in order to get help.
Reinforce that it’s not their fault Remind kids that it is never their fault if an adult or older person hurts or touches them. Kids should know that even if they’ve broken a rule or lied, they aren’t responsible for any abuse. Books like Your Body Belongs To You by Cornelia Maude Spelman can help you ease into the topic with younger children. With older kids and teens, news stories can serve as a good conversation starter. You can keep things pretty broad to begin with, and remember, this shouldn’t be a one-time talk. It’s OK, helpful even, to share little bits of information over time.
Believe them If your child does tell you someone touched them or harmed them, know that it is extremely rare for children to lie about this. According to a 2010 study by The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, only four percent of sexual abuse allegations have been proven false, and in most of those cases the accusations were made by a child’s parent against an ex-spouse.
Your first response should be to let your child know you believe them. Rastin reminds us that kids react differently to abuse. “Some children will want to talk openly about their feelings, while others might prefer to avoid discussing what happened. Let your child know that you understand it will take time to feel better; reassure them that things can and will improve.”
While there are no guarantees, providing a loving, non-judgmental environment that includes open communication, access to information about bodies and emotional support can go a long way toward keeping kids safe from sexual abuse.