Talking to your child about sexual abuse and sexual predators is a challenging but necessary conversation. Unfortunately, considering how prevalent sexual abuse has become, no parent has the luxury of not preparing their child in the hopes that it won’t happen. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by age 18. Ninety percent of the time, the abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, and in those cases, 50% are a trusted family friend, and 40% are a relative. When they become adults, the sexual pressure on young adults, both by predators and perhaps even their friends and partners, is high. This is one of the most difficult conversations you will have with your child, but it is important. Here we have more advice on how to have difficult conversations with your child generally.
This level of prevalence is what makes the conversation essential. “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 sexual predators makes children more comfortable coming to a parent if they do have a problem.” However, while the dangers are very real, you don’t want your child to see the world solely through that lens. To be perpetually fearful of the world is to live in paranoia and inhibition. The idea is to find a balance between safety and freedom. Just as when talking about sex, there is no such thing as one talk, but rather a series of small discussions over the years. It is also useful to be aware about what they are learning in schools.
Educating Children About Sexual Predators and Abuse
The average age of child abuse is 8 to 9, which means you need to start the conversation as early as 4. Talking about sexual abuse and what constitutes inappropriate touching is a crucial education before your child reaches a vulnerable age. Provide them with the tools to recognize what’s what. Below are some tips on how to educate children with your words and deeds.
- Start talking about body parts early. Many children who get abused don’t talk about it, either because they’re confused, feel guilty, or ashamed. Abusers count on this. It can help to give your child the language to talk about something like this if it ever happens. To do that, you need to start talking to them about body parts early and directly. “Use anatomically correct language,” says Jill Starishevsky, an assistant district attorney in New York City, where she has prosecuted thousands of sex offenders. “Using words such as ‘hooha’ for ‘vagina’ can delay disclosure.”
- Be specific with examples of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not a single act. Sexual predators do not all look a certain way. Many behaviors constitute sexual abuse. You need to provide them with specific examples of appropriate and inappropriate touches. For example, your child needs to know that it’s wrong for anyone to try to put their hand underneath their clothing. Without this knowledge, a child might not be able to tell when anyone touches them inappropriately. Inappropriate behaviors include showing porn or explicit images, flashing, touching private parts, peeping, etc.
- Explain tricks. Sexual predators are known to use a range of tricks on children. Some try to use an authority persona to try and lure children away. In contrast, others use incentives like gifts or some forbidden privilege to get the child to do what they want. Or they use shame or guilt, both effective strategies to force children into silence. Reinforce that you will love them and that it’s never their fault if someone touches them inappropriately. Your child must know that you will always believe them. It is also fundamental that they understand internet safety.
- Emphasize no-secret dynamics. Another way sexual predators keep children from talking to someone is to tell them that it’s a secret. It would help if you made it clear that there are no secrets to keep from you. But this goes beyond more than just telling them. Your child needs to see you as someone they can approach without getting shut down. You can also make a list of other people your child can talk to if someone does something inappropriate to them. This list needs to be people you trust. Encourage the child to go to any of them.
- Sharpen their instincts. Your child’s instincts can save them from potentially abusive situations. You need to teach them to trust their instincts. To do that, you need to validate their feelings. If you’re in the habit of telling your child that there’s nothing to be afraid of when they point something out, you may be teaching them to distrust their instincts. Instead, tell your child that fear is a valid response, not something to try to discount. Always ask them what they’re afraid of when they’re scared. The goal is to keep your child in touch with their feelings and know that they can talk about their fears.
- Shape their behavior towards others. The conversation is one-sided if it doesn’t touch on how your child behaves towards others. According to a study led by Judith V Becker on Juvenile sexual offenders, 6.4% of rapes and 9.7% of other sexual offenses are committed by children 10 to 15 years of age. As said before sexual predators are most likely to be known to your child. It could even be a friend. Types of sexual offenses committed by children are similar to those committed by adults, and the most common sex crimes are fondling (59%) and rape (23%). Sadly, many children engage in these behaviors without fully understanding how it impacts others. Teach your child not to be inappropriate with others. More importantly, they need to know why it’s not okay for them to harm others. When talking about this, you need to be as direct and clear as possible. Unfortunately, the prevalence of porn means that young adults have been desensitized to some abusive activities. They may think and be told it is expected and the norm.
- Avoid shaming your child for exploring their body. There’s a lot of awkwardness for children and teenagers as they learn more about their bodies and sexuality. It is usual for them to be curious. But, as a parent, you have to be careful not to do or say anything that makes that curiosity seem dirty. “Teach them that touching their bodies is something that we do only in private, not in public,” says Laura Reagan, a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, and consultant in the Baltimore area. “Avoid sending the message that sex is something shameful or bad, but explain that sex is something adults do to express love.”
What to Do If You Suspect Your Child Is Approached by a Sexual Predator
The knowledge or suspicion that your child is being abused can fluster any parent. In moments like these, you might act out of confusion, blame, or anger. Or simply not know what to do. Below are ways to go about it.
- Understand the signs. Make sure you understand the signs. The signs are never clear-cut. Some signs of abuse include excessive bathing, frequent nightmares, thumb-sucking, broken bones, talking less, swelling of the genital area, isolation, etc. Understanding the signs prompts early intervention.
- Speak with the child. It’s very tricky getting a child to open up about a sexual predator. To have any chance at getting them to open up, you need to create an environment that enables that. First, pick a place where the child feels most comfortable. Then, when you sit down to talk, you need to make sure your voice isn’t so grave. Make the conversation as casual as possible and let the child know that they’re not in trouble. You don’t want them feeling threatened, scared, or judged. Also, use age-appropriate language. For example, saying “Have you been hurt or abused?” might not register. Child molestation doesn’t always feel like hurt or abuse for children. Instead, you could say, “Has anyone been touching you?” Ultimately, you need to be patient with the child. Allow them to speak freely and take pauses when they want to.
- Report to the authorities. If you do confirm that your child has been approached by a sexual predator, report to the authorities. But before you do that, let the child know that you’re seeking help. Abused children may not want you to report, but you have to do it. Be clear with the authorities if you think the perpetrator can harm your child further. Sexual abuse is a difficult thing for any child and their family to go through. You might want to see a professional who can help. Also, it is more than likely that the predator is doing this to more than one child or has done it in the past. The authorities have the oversight to see this.
Final Thoughts on Talking About Sexual Predators
The road to recovery in the aftermath of a child’s sexual abuse is a long one. There’s no timeframe for it. How you handle things in the future is integral to your child’s healing. There will be triggers from time to time. A smell or a place can take the child right back to the moment the abuse happened. The child needs to feel safe and supported through it all. Your therapist should teach you some techniques to help with episodes.