Overcoming Child Abuse

Reflections on recovery.

How and When to Talk to Your Child About Sexual Abuse

Telling Kids About Sexual Abuse: How Young is Too Young?

I think that talking to our children about sexual abuse is one of the most unpleasant aspects of parenting. We don't want to scare them, yet we must prepare them. We want to protect them from the horrors of molestation, yet even contemplating bringing up the subject can make us feel as if we're stripping away the purity of their innocence.

Yesterday I received the link to an excellent ABC interview via facebook: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/talking-kids-sexual-abuse-10255396 . The springboard for this interview was Jill Strarishevskey's new book for children, My Body Belongs to Me. Jill, who is mother of a three-year-old, is also an experienced prosecuting attorney who has often worked on child abuse cases. During the interview she recounts asking her pediatrician for advice regarding the advisability of telling her daughter about sexual abuse. He tells her that when her child is old enough to be out of her site, she needs to be told. I agree, but many parents -- because of jobs, divorce, illness, deployment, etc. -- are away from their children for large blocks of time before they turn three. These parents often struggle to research and to find quality day care for their children, hoping and praying that their little one is in the care of a safe, competent adult. In fact, some prefer a day care center with a good reputation over relatives or neighbors precisely because of the research mentioned in the interview: 93% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a trusted family member or friend. Making these decisions is a complicated process

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For me, talking to children about sexual abuse and talking to them about sex are intertwined. As one young mother commented, "It seems to me that you can't really talk to them about sexual abuse until you've expained to them about sex."

Sex education begins at birth. Children learn about sex in the way they're touched, caressed, cuddled and cared for as infants. They continue to learn through exploration and by discovering how their bodies feel to themselves.  They learn what's OK and what's not OK from their parents, and by listening to what words family members say or don't say when referring to body parts.  They also learn by watching how people express affection and caring for each other. In our media-driven highly sexualized culture it's more important than ever for parents to be attentive to what their children may be taking in and put age-appropriate controls in place to protect their children from inaccurate or inappropriate information.

Remember that talking about sex needs to begin early, and should be a continual process, not a one-time event.  The best advice I received when rearing my own children, was to begin talking about sex long before they were emotionally involved: before hormones, adolescent embarrassment, insecurity, curiosity, rebellion, and poor choices infuenced by peer pressures set in. The wisdom of that advice feels even more relevant to me today, in what noted sex therapist Wendy Malz calls our pornified culture (and I think aptly so), because of the multiple ways in which our children are being exploited.

For instance, sexual abuse has expanded into the Internet. National cybersex addiction expert Stefanie Carnes, PhD, in a workshop for therapists (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Annual Conference, 2008) reported that one in five children who use computer chat rooms has been approached over the Internet by pedophiles and only 25% of youth who received sexual solicitation told a parent. In tandem, our media-driven culture has created an advertising industry that sexually objectifies women and adolsecent girls and boys. Several months ago, walking by an Abercrombie and Fitch store in a  local mall, I noticed a large black-and-white photograph of a healthy-looking teenage boy, who was wearing no shirt and more of his jockey-style underpants were showing than were his jeans.  I was reminded of the time I saw a tee-shirt for girls made by the same company. Across the breast area it read: "Who needs a brain when you have these?" 

Scenarios like these have a powerful influence on our children, an influence which parents must wrestle with on a daily basis. No wonder parents are  reluctant to bring up the subject of sex with their children. What mom or dad, looking down at her or his preschooler doesn't wish that their child wouldn't ever have to know that things such as sexual abuse or seductive advertising even exist. But they do. And the more we don't talk about it, and also don't teach ourselves and our children about healthy sexual development, the more we are grooming them to be abused and/or exploited.

Don't be afraid to talk to your child about sex. Why should children know about the birds and the bees without knowing about people? You won't destroy their innocence by sharing with them the amazing story about how they were born.  You will be telling them the sacred truth. And you won't be harming them by telling them about sexual abuse in age-appropriate language with the help of resources like Starischevskey's  interview (click on above link )and My Body Belongs to Me. You will be telling them that they are sacred.

Reading books together can be a helpful bridge into these topics.  One of my favorites for young children is Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle and Arthur Robins. Their next book, What's Happening to Me? for children a little older, is excellent, too. For children seven or eight through middle school, It's so Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families by Robie Haris and Michael Emberley is also very good, and more comprehensive, including the multiple ways babies come into their parents' lives. There are plenty of others, too.  Peruse your book store to find one that feels like a good fit for you and your child. And remember that the sex conversation is a continual process, and one of many ways you can protect your child and help her or him to become a strong, caring, and affectionate person.

 

Catherine McCall is a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the author of Never Tell: A True Story of Overcoming a Terrifying Childhood.

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