How do you talk to your kids about sexual abuse? Here are some important things you need to know.
This post has been on my heart, but I’ve been scared to write it for a couple of reasons. First, because I don’t want anyone to think that I consider myself a parenting “expert”. I’m not — I am ridiculously flawed, and considering that my oldest is only 10..I’m not even THAT experienced. Also, have you SEEN what the internet does when you are open and honest about your life and how you parent your children? I’m not so thick skinned, friends.
However — I did experience sexual abuse as teenager, which does give me a lot of insight…which brings me to the other reason for putting this off. I am a firm believer that God gets us out of tough situations so we can use them for good. I’ve gone through nearly two decades of wondering — what is it that He intends me to do? If we are being really really real with one another, the thought of being identified as “that woman whose dad messed with her when she was a kid” humiliates me. It’s embarrassing. I have so many passions and talents and interests — abuse is not how I want to be remembered.
But it’s 2015 — a whole new year, and I’ve decided it’s the year to open my mouth. Through the process of sharing my story with you, I have realized that I am very passionate about advocating for communication between kids and parents. What I want, more than anything, is to encourage you to talk to the little ones in your life about the very hard, scary things that you shouldn’t have to talk about. Because it is one of the only ways we can stop it from happening is to talk about it, talk about it, and talk about it some more.
So in light of this being the start of the new year, I want to ask you this, very directly: Have you talked to your little kids, medium kids, big kids, about sexual abuse in a way that is open, frank, and honest? My fear is that too many of us do not. It’s an uncomfortable topic. We shouldn’t HAVE to talk to our kids about this. It’s often viewed as inappropriate — who wants to talk to their kindergartener about someone touching their very private parts? Who wants to explain to a third grader that bad people exist, that we don’t know why, and that they sometimes hurt children on purpose?
Well, none of us want to talk about it. But if you don’t, you are sacrificing your discomfort for their safety. This is a conversation that NEEDS to happen, and be revisited as your children age.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
I started talking with my son very early, around age 4. This is just to introduce the idea — to wait until they are older and spring it on them is a little scary. We started with the Stranger Danger video, which he actually enjoyed. Those tactics are ones we still revisit when going somewhere that we may be separated.
Teach them that they are the boss of their bodies, and that is okay. They need to understand that ANY touching that makes them feel uncomfortable needs to stop, and that if that happens, they need to let you know. My son has always been taught by his school that if someone touches you “where a bathing suit would touch” that it is wrong. While I agree, I also know that many abusers work their way to that very slowly over time. They start with a hand on the leg, a long, uncomfortable hug, a back massage. Don’t force your child to hug people he or she doesn’t want to hug — they need to know that THEY are in control of who touches their bodies. My son was very shy as a small boy and I would make him give a high five or a fist bump if he didn’t want to hug an aunt or cousin. I would have LIKED him to hug them, but it’s more important to let your child feel that they have control over how someone gives them affection.
Keep it age appropriate. When Jon David was in Kindergarten, he asked me why he never met my dad. I told him that he did things that hurt my body and because of that, he had to go to jail. This year, I explained to him that my dad had touched parts of me that were private. It was upsetting for me and it was upsetting for him to hear. To be honest, my instinct was to protect him from that. But the reality of life is that sometimes people who do that are people you love and trust the most. And I want my son to know that I understand that, and would always believe him if he came to me about a situation of his own. I kept it very brief and simple, but I do feel that at 10 years old, I’d rather he find out from me than overhear it somewhere else.
Look for opportunities. My son immediately shuts down when I sit him down for a “conversation”. So instead, I listen for cues that might start a conversation that is appropriate. Often, they are in the car — I am sure he feels more comfortable because I am not looking directly at him. Recently, we were running errands when he said, “Did you see that Bill Cosby stuff on the news? That guy is so nice, those women need to stop!” Again — little kids have very big ears. I took the opportunity to ask if he knew what they were accusing Bill Cosby of — of course, he did not. I explained that it was rape — his ears IMMEDIATELY turned red, a sure sign that he’d heard the word before and associated it with something embarrassing (we all know our kid’s “tells” — aren’t they so funny?). So I told him that rape was when a someone kissed or touched another person in a way that they didn’t want to be touched without permission. Again — there is a way to explain that is age appropriate. I also explained that this could be by force — with the person fighting back and yelling, or it could be any time the other person was not in full control of their body — if they had been drinking a lot of alcohol, were given or had taken medication to make them pass out, or were asleep.
We also had a conversation about victims of rape, and how it is never EVER okay to call them a liar until you have evidence to prove that they are not telling the truth. I told him how scary it can be to come forward and how dangerous it is to make the world a scarier place to tell the truth. Again — keep it age appropriate and look for cues.
Do not treat sex as something that is off limits to talk about. No, we have not had “the talk” with my son (but plan to before “the video” he will watch in school). However — when I see that a word or a joke he might hear makes him embarrassed (most recently, boobs on a Barbie doll), I make sure to treat the subject casually, so he understands that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. Am I sometimes embarrassed? YES. Oh my gosh — YES. Absolutely. But I also don’t want there to be a humiliation attached to anything that is private or semi-sexual. Unfortunately, part of the reason so many cases of sexual abuse aren’t reported is out of shame and embarrassment…as a victim, I understand that. So I just want to keep the embarrassment at bay as much as possible, so if there was ever an issue, my kid feels safe having the discussion with me.
From one parent to another, this is one of the hardest parts of parenting for me. Telling my children, who I love and spend my life trying to protect, that bad people exist and that ugly things happen is sad and uncomfortable and stressful and scary. But as a survivor, I can tell you that it’s not about me and how I feel — it’s about arming them with what they need to stay safe in the world. Many of you have emailed me over the last couple of years with questions or for advice on this topic — please feel free to contact me for information or even just a listening ear ANY TIME. My email is cookbookqueenblog (at) gmail.com. I always love hearing from you, and this is a cause that is especially close to my heart.
Please — PLEASE make 2015 the year you have the hard, awkward, uncomfortable talks! We can do this!