Talking about abuse, particularly child sexual abuse may be uncomfortable, but it is crucial. Research shows that 8% of boys and 20% of girls will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. Talking with your children about body safety, and teaching them strategies to protect themselves, educates and empowers them. These conversations also pave the way for future discussions. When you have open, age-appropriate conversations, children understand they can talk with you about anything. To do so, you may have the following common questions:
What is child abuse?
In general, child abuse refers to the harmful treatment of a dependent minor by their parent or caretaker, which results in physical or emotional harm, sexual exploitation or death. There are three general categories of abuse:
- Physical - Occurs when a child’s body is injured due to an external force, such as someone else kicking, hitting, pushing or burning them.
- Sexual - Any sexual activity a child cannot understand or consent to – and is not limited to physical touching. Sexual exploitation and exposing children to sexually explicit materials are both forms of sexual abuse.
- Emotional or Psychological - A way of controlling others through words, actions, and emotions. Abusers may criticize, shame, blame, bully, embarrass or manipulate the emotions of others to undermine their mental well-being. Emotional abuse is much harder to recognize because there are no physical signs, and verbal abuse can also be another form.
How do I talk to my child about abuse?
As responsible adults, we teach our children many ways to stay safe. We teach them to look both ways before crossing the street, buckle up and wash their hands before eating. Similarly, teaching children about abuse is the best way to keep them safe. Here are some ways to decrease their risk:
- Body Parts – It is important to refer to your child’s body parts by their anatomic names. Using proper terms helps minimize any stigma and embarrassment.
- Swimsuit Rule – One simple way to teach your child about which body parts are personal and private is to use the swimsuit rule – if your swimsuit covers it, it is personal and private. Nobody should see or touch your child in the area covered by their swimsuit. The same goes for other people’s bodies. Your child should never look at or touch someone else in the swimsuit area - even if it is someone they know.
- Safe, Unwanted and Unsafe Touch – We teach our children about stranger danger, but most children are sexually abused by someone they know and trust. That is why it is important to talk with your child about the different types of touches. There are three types of touch you can teach your child about:
- Safe Touch – A safe touch is something that makes your child feel loved, cared for and important. One example might be a high-five from a friend, or a pat on the back for a job well done. Teach your child that sometimes, a safe touch may be something they do not like - such as getting a shot or an exam by a doctor – but it is to keep them healthy, and you will be there to keep them safe.
- Unwanted Touch - An unwanted touch may be a safe touch that your child does not want from that person at that moment. One example might be a hug from a relative your child is meeting for the first time. It is ok for your child to say “no“ to an unwanted touch, even if it is from someone they know. Teach your child to politely, but firmly, say “no.” This helps them understand and set personal boundaries.
- Unsafe Touch - An unsafe touch is one that hurts your child’s body or feelings, and can include kicking, slapping or inappropriate touching of their private parts.
- Safe vs. Unsafe Secrets – Perpetrators often ask children to keep a secret, and may either woo them with gifts or threaten harm to loved ones if they tell. Talk with your child about keeping secrets.
- Safe Secrets – These are only kept for a short time, make you feel happy and are eventually shared with everyone in the end. One example is baking a cake for grandma’s surprise birthday party. It is ok to keep it a secret until the party, when everyone will find out.
- Unsafe Secrets – These types of secrets may make you feel worried or scared, and the person asking you to keep the secret does not want you to tell anyone, ever.
- Listen to Your Body - Talk with your child about the warning signs their bodies might give them when something feels wrong or unsafe. Their tummy may feel funny, or their body might feel wobbly. Maybe their heart is beating very fast. If they ever feel this way, let them know they can talk to you, and you will listen.
- Saying “No!” - If an adult or older child ever does or says something that makes your child feel unsafe, worried or threatened, let them know it is ok to say “no.” Teach them to stand up for themselves, speak up and move or run away. Practice saying phrases such as, “Stop, I don’t like that.” Or, “No, it’s my body. Leave me alone.”
How do I respond if they say something that is concerning?
Anger, fear, sadness, shock, denial, shame, discomfort, disbelief – these are all reactions and feelings one might have if their child discloses or even hints they have been abused. If your child discloses something concerning to you, the most important first steps are to believe them and remain calm. Children are rarely mistaken about what happened to them, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse. Encourage your child to keep talking. Avoid making judgmental comments or statements, as these may cause your child to shut down and can add to their emotional distress. Your child may already feel frightened or guilty, particularly if the abuser is someone your child is close to or they have threatened harm if your child discloses the secret. Listen, and take your child seriously. Let him or her they know they did the right thing. Let them know you believe them. Reassure your child it was not their fault, and you will always be there to love and protect them.
What should I do if they share something I need to address?
If your child shares any suspicion of abuse or neglect, you need to report it to your local Child Protection Agency, also known as child protective services (CPS). The agency will conduct an investigation, which may include speaking to you, your child and others to determine what the unsafe situation is. CPS will take action necessary to protect your child, and also provide parents and caregivers with education, resources and support.
If you are ever in doubt, it is important to know that people who report suspected abuse, in good faith, cannot be prosecuted. You can also talk with your child’s pediatrician or healthcare provider. They may refer you to a physician who specializes in evaluating and treating abuse, and can help you and your child heal.
About the Author
Dr. Carmela Sosa is medical director of Valley Children’s Primary Care and Valley Children’s Guilds Center for Community Health. Of all the factors that influence a child’s health, only 20% are linked to clinical care; the other 80% are related to social determinants - the Guilds Center for Community Health focuses on that 80%. So in addition to being passionate about the clinical needs of a child, she is also invested in the other factors that contribute to kids’ health, and is committed to improving their well-being. Click here learn more about the Guilds Center for Community Health.