“Many survivors insist they’re not courageous: ‘If I were courageous I would have stopped the abuse.’ ‘If I were courageous, I wouldn’t be scared’… Most of us have it mixed up. You don’t start with courage and then face fear. You become courageous because you face your fear.” ― Laura Davis
Blake (name has been changed) was sexually abused as a young girl. It started when she was four and went on well into her early adolescence. Her family never suspected a single thing; they did not even know anything was wrong. Her abuser was a trusted family friend, and Blake’s parents told her they were disappointed when they heard the two kids were “spending a lot of time together.” This caused indescribable shame and secrecy that my friend did not address until she was in her twenties. She is now in her thirties and thriving, and she was gracious enough to share some of her story with us so we can learn from her experience, protect our young children, and prepare ourselves for how we will respond should this unthinkable horror occur to someone we care about.
No one looks like a rapist. Yet eight out of 10 instances of sexual assault are committed by someone known to the victim. It happens so much more frequently than we can even comprehend. In part one of this blog series, I shared warning signs commonly displayed in children who are sexually abused, as well as specific ways parents can be involved in their childrens’ lives. In this post, part two, I will share some of the specific conversations parents can have with their children, as well as, how we can respond if one of our children ever experiences the unthinkable–sexual abuse.
Specific conversations will protect and prepare children from sexual abuse.
When a child knows that their voice will be heard and taken seriously, it gives them the courage to speak up when something is not right. We can start having important conversations with our children as soon as they begin using words to talk about feelings or emotions. (If the child is older, please do not fret. We can start where we are…it is never too late!)
- Teach children how to talk about their bodies. From an early age, teach children the correct, anatomical names for body parts. When children have the words to describe their body parts, they may find it easier to ask questions and express concerns. This also dismisses any shame or secrecy regarding body parts.
- Teach children about boundaries. We must teach our children that no one has the right to touch them or make them feel uncomfortable. This includes hugs from grandparents or even tickling from mom, dad, aunts, uncles, babysitters, etc. Children must know that their body is theirs and theirs alone. Some parts of the body are private; let children know that other people should not touch or look at them. Most importantly, if they ever feel uncomfortable, they can say no. If a healthcare professional has to examine private parts of the child’s body, we must be present. Similarly, remind children that they do not have the right to touch someone else and that we always need to respect others’ boundaries.
- Give them the chance to raise new topics. Sometimes asking direct questions like, “Did you have fun?” and “Was it a good time?” will not yield the answers we need. We can give your children a chance to bring up their own concerns or ideas by asking open-ended questions like “Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?” and “Did you feel comfortable and safe?” Blake also recommends using an open-ended reminder like, “If you ever think of anything that happened or that you want to talk about, you can always bring it up with me.” This keeps the door open and communication flowing.
- Talk about secrets. Perpetrators will often use secret-keeping to manipulate children. We can teach our children they can always talk to us, including and especially if they have been told to keep a secret. Saying something like, “Privacy means you get to do it by yourself but mommy and daddy know about it. Secrecy means that mommy and daddy do not know about it, but our family does not do secrecy.” This will prepare our children to see secretive behavior as a red-flag.
- Reassure them that they will NOT get in trouble. Young children often fear getting in trouble or upsetting their parents by telling the truth, asking questions, or talking about their experiences. We have to be a safe place for our children. This will enable us to share sensitive information, answer any questions they may have, and teach them important lessons.
- Consider making a ‘Family Values About Sex’ checklist. This would include topics like who may see a child with a certain level of undress (parents, doctors, etc), what areas are okay to touch and which are not, etc. As kids age, the questions change accordingly and said checklist can be discussed regularly.
- Explain arousal. Yep, I said it. Arousal might be one of the most important physiological responses related to sexual abuse that our children need to know about. Explain why touching certain body parts makes them feel the way it does and who is allowed to do it to them. (No one can touch their mouth, their chest and their private parts, etc.)
- Use the media to make it relevant. Ask your teen’s opinion on something happening on social media, in the news, in a new movie, or on a popular TV show. We can even watch an episode with them and ask follow up questions. Asking their opinion shows them that we value their point of view and opens up the door for more conversation.
- Use our own experience to tell a safety story. Sharing our own experiences can make these conversations relevant and feel more real to teens. If we do not have an experience we feel comfortable sharing, we can tell a story about someone we know.
- Talk about sexual assault directly. For some teens, safety issues like sexual assault are not even on their radar. Bring up statistics that relate to them, such as the fact that 93 percent of victims who are minors know the perpetrator, and that date rate is much more common than we dare to think. Explain that eight out of 10 instances of sexual assault are committed by someone known to the victim, and that we must always be careful and vigilant. Ask specific questions. “Has anyone ever touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable? Has anyone ever asked you to keep a secret from me? Has anyone ever invited you into their home?” Being direct and aware is so different from being paranoid!
What if I suspect abuse is already happening?
- Call 911 if there is any immediate threat of danger.
- To report child abuse, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 or your state agency.
- Seek mental and emotional help for the child right away. If he/she can get guidance from a trained, certified professional, it will greatly aid in their progress and future wellbeing.
If a child comes to us to disclose being a victim of sexual abuse, there is only one thing to say: “I. Believe. You.” Those three words alone start the conversation off correctly. Frankly, the amount of courage it took them to seek help is nothing short of heroic, and we need to treat it as such. Our response should be all about thanking the child for being brave enough to tell us about what he/she is going through. We must make them feel heard, trusted, safe, and loved. Then we need to get them professional help and be with them every step of the way on their journey of healing.
When Blake approached her parents to divulge what had been happening with their neighbor, her mother scoffed at her. That reaction shut Blake down forever. She knew her mother was not a safe place and she never spoke to her about the pain she was experiencing. Blake internalized her abuse for years to come and experienced feelings of shame and self-loathing that no child should ever have to feel. Luckily, she pulled herself out of this downward spiral and got help. She has put significant time into her healing, and is in a beautiful place in her life as a wife, mother, and advocate for protecting children from predators. Thank you, Blake, for sharing your story!
I feel passionately about this topic. I will do anything I can to increase awareness of child sexual abuse, and I hope these two blog posts have been helpful. If I can be of assistance to you as you navigate your’s or your child’s experience as a survivor, please let me know. My door is always open. Please do not hesitate to click here and contact me immediately to get started.
Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.
- Center for Child Protection: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: Know The Facts & Signs.
- Child Welfare Information Gateway: State Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Numbers
- Darkness to Light: Child Sexual Abuse Statistics; Identifying Child Sexual Abuse; Reporting Child Sexual Abuse.
- Goodreads: Child Sex Abuse Quotes
- Help and Hope: PROTECTING CHILDREN FROM SEXUAL ABUSE”
- RAINN: How Can I Protect My Child From Sexual Assault?
- RAINN: Perpetrators of Sexual Violence
- RAINN: Talking to Your Kids About Sexual Assault
- Today: 7 ways parents can protect kids from child sexual abuse