It’s a topic no parent wants to even think about. But not talking to our kids about appropriate vs. inappropriate touching is irresponsible. Learn how and when to talk to your children about sexual abuse, and how to handle suspected abuse.
Donald McLean was 12 when he was molested by his sister’s favorite teacher, someone his family trusted to be a mentor to Donald. The abuse would continue for three years. During that time, says McLean, who wrote Unraveling Charlie (Create Space Publishing) about his experience, “it impacted my behavior and attitude. I hid it from everyone and blamed myself for what happened, as children do. Even though I knew what was happening was wrong, I didn’t know how wrong.
“It was the late 60s, and no one even talked about sex education, so I had no language to explain what was happening to me,” says McLean, a New York City-based karate instructor. “I had no idea how to approach my parents about it. My parents weren’t disengaged. People just weren’t looking for signs back then. But if I had been able to talk to someone, I know I would have gotten help.”
Experts say that today there is plenty of available language to use with children to help keep them safe from sexual abuse. Yet, it’s a topic that makes most parents uncomfortable, and therefore less inclined to broach it with their child. That decision can make a child more vulnerable to a sexual predator, says Jill Starishevsky, a child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor in New York City.
“We have to have the conversation with our children early because child sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate with age, race, or socioeconomic background,” says Starishevsky, author of My Body Belongs to Me (Safety Star Media) for preschoolers. “Most of the time we can’t tell who will be a sex offender, so all we can do is to try to give our children the tools to be safer.”
Parents may not realize how prevalent child sexual abuse has become. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by age 18. In only 10 percent of these cases is the abuser a stranger, says Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D., executive director of The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Instead, 90 percent of the time the abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, and in those cases, 40 percent are a relative and 50 percent are a trusted family friend.
That is why experts believe that conversations with your child are so important. “An educated child is a safe child,” says Alane Fagin, executive director of Child Abuse Prevention Services in Roslyn. “Children are more likely to be scared of the unknown. The key is to keep the conversation developmentally appropriate. Talking about these issues makes children more comfortable coming to a parent if they do have a problem.”
Fagin adds that the summer—when children tend to have more freedom and are around other adults in different situations than during the school year—is a perfect time to start the conversation and continue it over the years.
“As they become more independent in their activities and social lives, the information they get needs to be clearer,” Fagin says. “Just because you discussed it when they were in elementary school doesn’t mean you don’t have to talk about it anymore.”
What to Say
Start as soon as your child is developmentally ready to listen. Dr. Pulido says that the average age of abuse is 8 to 9, so speak with your children before they reach that vulnerable age—Starishevsky recommends as early as age 3.
Frame the discussion around safety rather than abuse, suggests Dr. Pulido, much as you would talk to them about crossing the street and not touching a hot stove. And take advantage of teachable moments, like if your child has overheard a related story in the news.
Use basic language. The general rule, Fagin says, is to tell your child that anything covered by a bathing suit is considered private. “Use anatomically correct language,” Starishevsky says. “Using words such as ‘hooha’ for ‘vagina’ can delay disclosure.” But Dr. Pulido says if you’re really too uncomfortable to use the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ with your child, make sure that you both agree on what the term you do use means to avoid any confusion for them. “The most important thing is that the conversation be had,” Dr. Pulido says. “If you need help, ask your pediatrician for guidance.” Children’s librarians can also recommend numerous age-appropriate books that can aid your discussion.
Give examples of appropriate versus inappropriate touch. “When having this conversation, it’s important for parents to help their children recognize that there are a whole range of behaviors that constitute sexual abuse,” Fagin says. “Sexual abuse is defined as any forced or tricked sexual touching by an adult or older child, as well as non-touching offenses like flashing, peeping, obscene phone calls, and showing pornography to a child.”
Dr. Pulido recommends sharing specific ideas about what appropriate touches are: changing a baby’s diaper, giving a toddler a bath, or getting a vaccination from the doctor, for example.
“Inappropriate touches are any time someone touches your private parts in a way that makes you feel confused, sad, or uncomfortable,” she says. “You can tell your child that if someone puts their hand under your shirt or in your pants, that is unsafe.”
Give them a strategy. Tell your children that if anything makes them uncomfortable they can tell Mom, Dad, and a third “safety zone person,” another adult they trust, such as a grandparent or teacher, Starishevsky says.
Dr. Pulido suggests making a list with your child of who he would tell. “Then tell him: ‘Keep telling until someone believes you.’ And most importantly, make sure [your kids] know that whatever happens is never their fault.”
Don’t allow secrets. Since sexual predators use language like, “This is our secret. Don’t tell anyone,” teach your child that there are no secrets from Mom, Dad, or the safe person. “Eliminate the word ‘secret’ from your vocabulary,” Starishevsky says. “Tell them we don’t do secrets. Instead, use the word ‘surprise’ for those family treats so the child knows that if someone says, ‘You can’t tell Mommy our secret,’ that is something they need to tell.”
Validate their feelings all along. Nicholas Strouse, LCSW, director and clinician at Westport Family Counseling in Connecticut, says that the most important thing parents can do to keep their children safe is to validate their feelings so they trust their own instincts.
“If they’re scared, ask them what they’re afraid of,” he says. “If you override their instincts and tell them they have nothing to be afraid of, as in ‘You don’t need a nightlight because there’s nothing scary about the dark,’ you don’t teach them their response to their fears is valid.
“Work with them behaviorally to ask them what they are feeling in their body, like butterflies in their stomach,” Strouse advises. “Teaching them to pay attention to that reinforces their feelings. Make it okay to talk about how they feel and that they won’t be judged.”
Jill Starishevsky, a child abuse/sex crimes prosecutor in New York City, offers these additional tips for helping to keep children safe from sexual abuse:
• Let children decide for themselves how they want to demonstrate affection. Never force them to give a relative a hug, for instance.
• With tickling, no means no. They need to know that it’s okay to say no to an adult and that their words have power.
• Respect the privacy of others. Unless you teach children what is an inappropriate behavior—like barging in on someone in the bathroom—they won’t be able to tell you when it happens to them.
How to Handle Suspected Abuse
Identifying if an adult acted inappropriately with your child can be a nuanced situation. As McLean says, he was a moody preteen and he just got moodier, which didn’t raise any flags at home. But Strouse recommends paying attention to a cluster of changes to your child’s behavior, like terror where they used to feel safe, reactions to a person’s name, nightmares, and certainly any sexually advanced language or body movements that reflect arousal. He adds that while none of these symptoms automatically signal that a child is being abused, they are warning signs on which you should follow up.
If your child makes a disclosure, it has to be handled carefully so the child doesn’t clam up. “Don’t scream or cry because your child will think you’re angry with him,” Starishevsky says. “Don’t ask open-ended questions. Children disclose in increments. They test the waters. If they say an uncle touched their knee and you get upset, they may not tell you more.”
If you believe your child has been sexually abused, Dr. Pulido says you must act. If the perpetrator is a parent or caretaker, call the child abuse hotline: in New York, 800-342-3720; New Jersey, 800-792-8610; and Connecticut, 800-842-2288.
If the suspected abuser is anyone who is not an immediate family member, call 911.
“The most important thing you can do in these moments,” Fagin says, “is to believe your child.”
Resources in the New York metro area for victims of sexual abuse
Keeping Your Kids Safe While Out of the House