How to talk to kids about sexual abuse, and how you can help prevent it

One of my clients came into my office one day for a last-minute appointment and he sounded anxious. I had been working with him as his psychotherapist for several months and we had just started to delve into some deeper issues as our therapeutic bond became stronger. It was in that session, for the first time in his life, at age 29, that he told me about multiple acts of sexual abuse that he endured when he was 4 years old, by someone he knew very well.

Therapists come to care about their clients, and the thought of him experiencing that, and keeping it silent for so long, upset me. This story particularly struck me because my son had just turned 4. The day before my client disclosed this abuse, I had been sitting outside at my son’s school with some of the other parents, watching the kids play with a joyful, carefree innocence. As my client told me his story, it was all too easy to picture exactly where he was when this happened to him.

He was not the first client to, as an adult in my office, disclose past sexual abuse for the first time. Adult women have confided in me about sexual abuse and rape in high school and college, and I’ve had clients who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by childhood sexual abuse. Although accurate child-abuse statistics are somewhat elusive because so much is not reported, RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization, has said that one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under 18 will be the victim of sexual abuse by an adult. This is a topic that needs to be addressed and discussed with children in a frank and open way.

Here are suggestions from experts on how parents can talk to their children about sexual abuse and their bodies.

Start talking to them about their bodies early. “At the youngest ages (even changing diapers) we can teach children the correct names of their body parts and model respect for their bodily autonomy and boundaries,” says Laura Reagan, a licensed clinical social worker in Maryland. “It’s important to give children the message that their bodies are normal and answer children’s questions about their bodily functions and sex, without shaming them for being curious. Do not force children to give hugs or kisses or sit on anyone’s lap. Teach them that they are the only ones who are allowed to touch their sexual body parts, except when a doctor or caregiver needs to examine those body parts for a specific reason related to health or hygiene.”

Experts emphasize that these conversations are ongoing and evolving and should never stop.

Dalal Musa, a social worker at the Center for Post-Traumatic and Dissociative Disorders Program at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, adds that parents should avoid spanking their children. “The use of corporal punishment profoundly undermines children’s sense of dignity, safety, and privacy — this practice is completely contrary to teaching children to respect their own and other’s bodies and self-esteem,” Musa says.

Start talking about the basics of sexual reproduction when children are around 5 years old. Musa says that around 4 or 5, children become curious about where babies come from, and you can talk about sex in an accurate and simple way without having to get too detailed. For more tips on discussing this topic and what to tell kids at various ages, visit Family Education’s website.

Do not shame children about masturbation, their bodies or sex. “Teach them that touching their own bodies is something that we do only in private, not in public,” Reagan says. “Avoid sending the message that sex is something shameful or bad, but explain that sex is something adults do to express love. Be clear that adults do not have sexual interactions with children, and that if any adult ever touches a child’s sexual body parts the parent needs to know.”

Model an environment of calmness, openness and safety to ask questions. “Throughout childhood and teen years, parents modeling calm, support and openness, rather than confrontational questioning, encourages children and teens to feel safe to raise topics for discussion over time,” Musa says. Tell your children that they can come to you about anything and you won’t get angry with them. You can help your child stay open and process things as they come up by using good listening skills, such as repeating what your child tells you back to them, trying to empathize with their perspective and helping them problem-solve when issues come up. Continuing to do this will help your children feel safe coming to you when they encounter any issues or problems.

Protect children from pornography. “Although this seems obvious in the age of extremely easy digital access, the exposure to pornography — much of it highly explicit, violent and degrading — is occurring earlier and earlier; estimates now are that boys ages 8 to 11 have seen such material online,” Musa says. “While we cannot stop older children from being exposed outside of the home, we can ask parents of their friends about parameters around this, and model transparency, in acknowledging that this is rampant and let kids know they can talk about feelings about these pressures.”

“What’s worse is that more and more often, younger teens — especially young girls — are sharing explicit “selfies” with their boyfriends,” says Stacie Rumenap, president of Stop Child Predators, a nonprofit group that combats the sexual exploitation of children nationwide. “In extreme cases, these same teens are being arrested for possession and distribution of child pornography. It’s important to warn teens against sending raunchy photos as jokes or as love notes. Too often when a relationship disintegrates, those pictures can be sent maliciously elsewhere. Kids’ lives are being ruined as a result.”

When it comes to prevention, it’s a matter of trust. All the experts I spoke with emphasized that it is important for a parent to listen to their gut and to only leave their child with people they trust. Children who have been sexually abused are most often abused by someone they know, and on multiple occasions. That’s why, Musa says, “it is important for children to have supervision and information to lessen their vulnerability.”

Joanne Comstock, a specialist in working with trauma victims, says parents need to “make sure that the child is in situations where caregivers were properly vetted with background checks. If it’s a church situation I would be sure that there’s a safe child policy.” Comstock also says to be vigilant when a child begins to show signs of being withdrawn.

“A child I worked with was in fourth grade and would not make friends with other children, even after other children made significant overtures. This closing down is an example of a typical behavior,” she says. “Sometimes an abuser will make threats if a child tells the truth and they can be afraid. This type of threat might be harming the child or people they love. It should be addressed directly by asking the child if this has happened. If a child is very young, play therapy can be helpful.”

Rumenap adds, “Really listen to your child and trust he or she is telling the truth. Too often parents think their child couldn’t possibly be abused, especially by someone they know. If your child comes forward, make sure they know for certain that you’re on their side and assure them you’ll get them help and bring their perpetrator to justice.”

Melissa Kilbride, a licensed clinical social worker, says, “I try to remind parents that their children will learn about their bodies, about sex and about tricky people, and it is up to parents to decide who they want them to learn it from. If parents choose not to introduce these concepts directly, it sends a message that it’s not safe for the child to come to them with concerns.”

This article was originally published in The Washington Post’s “On Parenting” section on February 8th, 2017 where Lena is a regular contributor.